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Transfers to private schools, suburban districts, home schooling spur latest CPS enrollment drop

The school system suffered its 10th consecutive year of falling enrollment, now down to 330,000 from last year’s 341,000, according to a tally on the 20th day of this school year.

A student walks down the hallway at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School, 1830 S. Keeler Ave.
Chicago Public Schools suffered its 10th consecutive year of falling enrollment, now down to 330,000 students.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Chicago Public Schools’ latest enrollment drop was spurred largely by students leaving the city for schools elsewhere in the state or country, plus children moving to city private schools, parents opting for home schooling or kids falling off the district’s radar, new data released Wednesday shows.

The number of students falling into one of those categories totaled almost 26,000 and left CPS hanging on by a thread to its status as the third-largest district in the nation. The school system suffered its 10th consecutive year of falling enrollment, now down to 330,000 from last year’s 341,000, according to a tally on the 20th day of this school year.

“One of the questions that I’m asking ... as we’re seeing more children, what it appears to be, transferring outside of the city, is what are the offerings right now that we have across our neighborhoods?” CEO Pedro Martinez said. “Do we have a clear standard of the quality of our offerings and programs, and how is that contributing to enrollment declines across some of these neighborhoods?”

Martinez said he also plans to examine the pandemic’s impact on enrollment, particularly as families faced continued “uncertainty about this school year.”

CPS saw a rise in the number of new students enrolling in the district compared to last year, but the increase in students leaving the system was greater, causing the net loss of about 11,000 kids.

That came after what appeared to be a relatively stagnant period last year with fewer students moving in and out of the district as the pandemic limited the movement families were willing or able to make. CPS last year saw thousands fewer new students entering the system and also fewer kids leaving.

The enrollment drop this year included 17,888 students leaving Chicago for out-of-city public or private schools; 3,129 children moving to Chicago private schools; and 1,393 opting for home schooling. Another 3,408 were marked “did not arrive,” meaning they hadn’t shown up by the 20th day of school and CPS didn’t have information on their whereabouts.

All those categories either saw increases or similar numbers compared to last year. But in particular, the number of kids transferring outside the city, those who “did not arrive” and children moving to home schooling all increased even over pre-pandemic figures.

The district’s number of students has been falling for the past 10 years and is down a whopping 72,500 kids from 402,681 in June 2011 — just after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel first took office.

“When I was in CPS my first year in 2003, we were just under 440,000 students,” said Martinez. “And even then I was seeing declines in about 3,000 students or so [per year]. I would have never imagined seeing this steep of a decline.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said it’s a “minor miracle” that CPS enrollment didn’t decline even more than 11,000 given the difficulties of the past year and a half.

“We’ve been through a global pandemic,” she said at an unrelated news conference. “We had to quickly transition to remote learning. We know that didn’t work for a lot of families. There’s been a lot of challenges and struggles that have been revealed throughout the course of this pandemic that hit our most vulnerable residents the hardest, many of whom” have children attending CPS, she said.

“So, given all of that, the fact that we’re down only 10,000, to me, is a minor miracle.”

Racial demographics remained the same since last year — almost 47% of CPS students are Hispanic, 36% are Black, 11% are white, 4% are Asian American and the remainder are either multiracial or from other groups. Pilsen, Little Village and Lincoln Park saw some of the greatest enrollment drops.

Among the gloomy news came some positive signs, too. As the district announced last week, the number of students dropping out fell in the past year.

And of the 100,000 children CPS identified as being at risk of not re-enrolling this fall, 87% are back in school or graduated. Among the remaining students, 7,132 transferred to other schools, 4,606 dropped out, 254 were incarcerated and 43 died.

After district officials presented the data to Board of Education members at Wednesday’s monthly meeting, several board members and Martinez said they would like to see an exit survey created to help get to the heart of why so many families were leaving.

Board President Miguel del Valle suggested skyrocketing rent and gun violence were at least two problems.

“The factors that were there 30, 40 years ago, in many neighborhoods are still there today,” he said. “So they look to relocate and sometimes that relocation happens outside the city of Chicago because it’s getting more and more expensive for these families to relocate in more and more neighborhoods in the city of Chicago.”

Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said it would be a good idea to drill down on more specific reasons but added that “these declines are not new.”

“There’s things to figure out, what are the specific reasons now. But also you don’t have to start the community work from scratch because there are all types of community organizations, researchers in this city who already have documented quite prolifically what’s pushing families out of the city,” she said.

“There’s the CPS-specific part, but I think that also again speaks to the fact that these solutions do not solely lie at CPS. People come to schools to answer everything, and this exists, and a lot of the reasons are beyond the schools.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said underfunded schools are a big factor, in his view.

“Black and Brown residents, in particular, continue to be asked to send their children to underfunded, underinvested and under-resourced public schools, in communities that lack quality basic neighborhood services,” he said in a statement. “Ongoing systemic discrimination, corruption and lack of investment are preventable harms that expel Black people from our city, and drive Black families from neighborhood public schools.”

Martinez supports evidence-based budgeting

One major system affected by these enrollment figures is student-based budgeting, the district’s funding formula that gives schools money based on how many students they have. Education advocates have criticized that model because schools that have lost enrollment over the years — generally in Black and Latino neighborhoods — have then lost funding, leading to a vicious cycle of reduced programming causing more kids to leave and so on.

Asked about student-based budgeting, Martinez said he’ll take a closer look over the next few weeks and months at how these enrollment declines are affecting schools and neighborhoods.

“I don’t have an actual opinion one way or another on student-based budgeting,” Martinez said. “I think there’s advantages to it, in terms of the level of transparency, we can compare schools, we can have great equity conversations. For me, the bigger question is what is happening across programming across all of our schools.”

Martinez said he supports evidence-based budgeting, a model adopted by state education officials a few years ago, which grants schools funding based on their unique students’ needs — such as the number of kids coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, in special education, experiencing homelessness and other factors. But Martinez said that formula would need full funding to work, which the state isn’t currently accomplishing — by state metrics, CPS is below 70% adequately funded.

CPS over the past couple of years has tried to slow the churn of student-based budgeting. The district has sent money to some schools to partially offset their declining enrollment, and this year created a formula similar to the one the state now uses that accounts for student needs. But those still account for only a portion of the budgeting process.

Contributing: Fran Spielman