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As CPS enrollment plummets again, new CEO says ‘tough decisions’ lie ahead

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said preliminary data shows 327,000 students enrolled at CPS this year, about 14,000 fewer than last year and nearly 30,000 less than the year before the pandemic.

CPS enrollment has dropped again.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools enrollment is down for the 10th consecutive year as the district grapples with the effects of the pandemic, and the new CEO tasked with leading the system through the turmoil says he’s prepared for difficult conversations about under-enrolled schools.

Pedro Martinez, on his third day as the schools chief in the city where he grew up, said one of his priorities will be to address budget and enrollment shortcomings that have caused a vicious spiral of underfunded schools to lose students and subsequently lose more money, teachers and programs.

Martinez said preliminary data shows 327,000 students enrolled at CPS this year, about 14,000 fewer than last year and nearly 30,000 less than the year before the pandemic. The district has not yet released official enrollment figures. Martinez said those would come out soon.

In looking to end the enrollment nosedive of the past decade, Martinez vowed to engage families and communities to hear their ideas and concerns. But those “frank conversations” might lead to hard choices, he said Friday.

“I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past of just closing schools to close schools,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times when asked about former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s massive 2013 school closures. “That is not the way that I work.

“I want to talk about how do we provide your child high-quality, accessible programming, because that’s how your child is going to be successful. And that might mean some hard decisions about what we do with some of our schools buildings.”

Student loss has been tied to Chicago’s general population drop over the years, primarily as Black residents move elsewhere, citing a host of concerns including job loss, crime and disinvestment in communities of color.

Martinez said community schools should be strengthened, and he and his CPS team would go neighborhood by neighborhood to hear parents’ thoughts and “understand what is happening.”

This year’s enrollment drops were seen across varying student groups and demographics, he said. Last year was hardest felt by preschool programs and the earliest elementary grades.

In San Antonio, Martinez used charter schools and other forms of privatization to create new options, tactics that public school advocates and teachers unions fight strongly against because resources can be siphoned away from traditional schools.

Martinez said in his introductory press conference last month that every district is different and he wouldn’t necessarily repeat those decisions at CPS.

The new CEO said the problems here are “complex” and the process to evaluate any changes would take time. But if any new schools were to be built, officials would have to take into account enrollment projections five years from now and not “make decisions on what’s happening today.”

Martinez said he doesn’t believe the district has enough money to sustain underutilized schools. By state officials’ accounts, CPS is only funded at about two-thirds adequacy. It would need about $2 billion more per year, on top of its about $7-8 billion annual budget, to fully fund all its schools and programs.

And while the federal government gave CPS $1.9 billion in pandemic relief money to be used over the course of three years, there are no indications that kind of funding will find its way to the district on a more permanent basis.

“We have amazing, amazing schools across our city,” Martinez said. “And so for us, we know that we know how to provide high-quality programming to our children. But not everybody’s having access.

“This is the frank conversation we’ve got to have. But I think it has to be grounded on, how do we make sure we still have a minimum number of high-quality schools in each neighborhood so that it doesn’t come across that we’re going to just take away all the schools of a neighborhood. I don’t think that’s the right approach either. And I think we do have enough children to be able to do that. ... I want to show [communities] the data. And then let’s talk about what long-term solutions we can have.”