CPS enrollment could drop by 15,000 students — but that could benefit the district overall, researchers say
A new analysis predicts K-12 enrollment in Chicago could be as low as 262,000 by 2025 — down from 378,000 a decade ago.
This fall, the student population of Chicago Public Schools could continue its dramatic downward slide and drop below 300,000 elementary and high school students.
That’s the lowest predicted enrollment, based on the current number of students by grade-level and birth rate data, from researchers who specialize in using data to address civic problems. Last year, CPS enrolled 314,500 students plus 15,000 preschoolers, down from 378,000 students a decade ago.
The researchers predict K-12 enrollment could be as low as 262,000 by 2025.
Chicago Public School officials tell WBEZ they don’t expect a significant decline, but noted in a statement that many public school districts across the country face similar challenges.
But the researchers stress the dip in enrollment, no matter the magnitude, could actually benefit the district’s remaining students.
CPS’ main revenue sources — state and local property taxes — are relatively stable and don’t decline significantly when enrollment drops, despite a perception otherwise. With fewer students, CPS actually has more money to spend on each child.
Last week, the school district found out it will get less state money than anticipated, partly due to dropping enrollment. But that $30 million loss resulted not from enrollment decline generally but from a drop in low-income students specifically. As CPS has lost low-income students, it has moved from the neediest state tier to the second neediest.
Despite that, the misconception that fewer students automatically means less money dominates and is used as justification for budget cuts and a scarcity mindset, said Denali Dasgupta, who founded a company called Higher Ground Data and worked with DataMade on the enrollment and revenue disconnect.
While the researchers acknowledge there needs to be some correlation between the number of students and the number of teachers, and that the school district needs a system for allocating its limited dollars, they also point out that CPS class sizes are bigger than they should be, so cutting teachers at this point doesn’t make sense.
Trying to debunk an enrollment-revenue connection
The DataMade researchers note that the biggest chunk of CPS’ budget, from city property taxes, isn’t tied to enrollment. The district collects a fixed amount from taxpayers each year regardless of how many students are enrolled.
The next largest chunk of school district’s funding comes from the state, which is tied to enrollment. But under the new state funding formula approved in 2017, the connection between a district’s enrollment and its state allocation was diminished, Dasgupta said.
In fact, schools will not see the core amount they receive from the state each year drop, regardless of enrollment, said Allison Flanagan, the associate director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan Illinois research group.
But enrollment affects how much new state money districts receive, she said. That’s what happened last week when CPS learned it would receive a smaller portion of new state money.
The new state formula is designed to channel any additional state money to needier school districts first, based on a formula that determines whether a district is providing its students an “adequate” education.
Under this formula, Chicago Public Schools is considered 74.6% adequately funded, up from 68% last year.
The school district is significantly better off but, according to a new state calculation, is still more than $400 million short of what it needs to be adequately funded and has only 68% of what it needs in local and state funding.
This is one reason why student-based budgeting in CPS is criticized. The school district and the state agree average class sizes are too large and staffing ratios are insufficient in Chicago, but some individual schools have to make cuts based on enrollment.
Daniel Anello, executive director of Kids First Chicago, said the school district needs to think through what it means to have a smaller school district with many smaller schools.
“We think a school building is a certain size, and it’s supposed to serve students in a classroom where 25 kids go in and they sit in their rows,” said Anello, whose group issued a report last year that warned of dire consequences if enrollment continues to shrink. “I think we have to kind of separate ourselves from that kind of old-school conventional thinking about what a school building is meant to be.”
Closing under-enrolled schools has not proven to be good for children or communities, Anello said. Yet he believes there will be budget implications if Chicago Public Schools, and other shrinking school districts across the country, don’t think out of the box on how to better serve a smaller number of students.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ.