Before we take a data dive, let's acknowledge something important: every number in a staff cut represents an actual person. As Xian Barrett writes in The Progressive, the students who have developed personal connections to their teachers suffer the most when a teacher is laid off. So while I think there's value in the analysis I present below, let's not forget that we are talking about children and educators -- real people who are going through real hell.
The layoffs took place in an atmosphere of continuing friction between the Chicago Teachers Union and district leadership, who can count on the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, among others, to lay the blame for the district's continuing fiscal problems at the feet of the union:
The district is a candidate for bankruptcy. Chicago taxes already are rising, but CTU wants more. A CPS contract offer on the table since January is a sweet deal for educators; district CEO Forrest Claypool tells us it won't — can't — get sweeter.
CPS' proposal offers teachers a generous raise and keeps paying them for added seniority and education. It does make a significant ask: Teachers would have to pay a 7 percent pension tab that CPS now pays but no longer can afford. CPS still would pick up the employer's share of pension costs but asks employees to pay their share. Most Chicagoans, most Americans, understand that, since they too have to save for their own retirement.Note the framing here: the funding of Chicago's schools is an issue of teacher compensation, which is negotiated by the CTU. And the union just doesn't understand how "sweet" of a deal they've been offered (of course, that "sweet" deal only apples to the teachers who haven't been laid off). Sure, the teachers have to take a pay cut to fund their own pensions... but The Trib knows there really isn't any other choice:
See, more money for Chicago's schools is "impossible" -- I mean, everyone knows that, right? Clearly, Chicago's schools have all they could ever need to provide an adequate and equitable education for the city's children! Everybody just needs to sacrifice a bit more -- and by "everyone," The Trib means Chicago's teachers -- and only the teachers -- who have to understand the gravy train just can't keep chugging along..."Reality can't be altered," [Chicago schools CEO Forrest] Claypool tells us. "The reality is we do not have more to give than was offered in January. ... There is not a dollar surplus to this budget." Unless, he adds, the union wants to "cut classrooms and jeopardize not only teacher jobs but more important, the academic progress of our kids."Teachers who strike wouldn't only jeopardize the education of their students, they would set a lousy example for the children: When what you want is impossible, toss a tantrum. [emphasis mine]
When you look at the issue of school funding through the lens of teacher pay, it's easy to ignore some inconvenient facts. Here's one: when Bruce Baker* and the good folks at the Education Law Center put together a list of America's most fiscally disadvantaged school districts, they found: "Chicago and Philadelphia are, year after year, the two most fiscally disadvantaged large urban districts in the nation."
This is the story that The Trib, and everyone else who tut-tuts at the CTU, will not tell you: Chicago's schools, which serve proportionally many more at-risk students than their neighboring districts, are chronically underfunded. This reality, more than any perceived greed on behalf of Chicago's teachers, is what drives the fiscal "crisis" the district faces today.
Let's go to the data:
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Who attends Chicago public schools?
In this analysis, I compare Chicago's schools to the rest of Cook County, IL. I could have expanded out to the entire labor market for the area, or to the entire state. But my goal here is to provide some context for the debate over Chicago teacher salaries; Cook County is a good frame because those other districts are right next to Chicago, and the total population of the county is split almost evenly between Chicago and the other towns. What do we find (click to enlarge)?
There's something else to keep in mind:
This takes a little explaining, but it's important. Suppose we calculate the average family income for all of the children within a town. Then we calculate the same average, but this time only for the children enrolled in public schools. If the averages were the same, we'd conclude that the children who were enrolled in private schools or homeschooled weren't any wealthier than the children in public schools.
Outside of Chicago, that appears to be the case: public school families have, on average, 95 percent of the income of all families, including those who enroll their children in private school. But in Chicago, the average public school family income is only 80 percent of the income of all families. This implies the concentration of lower-income families is even greater within the Chicago Public Schools than poverty estimates for the city would suggest.
What else do we know about the children enrolled in CPS?
This looks like some noisy data, but it does show a clear pattern across several years: CPS enrolls more English Language Learners (ELL) than the other Cook County districts.
Let's look at special education students:
One of the nastier accusations you'll hear reformy types make about big-city school districts is that they over-classify special education students to make their relative test scores look better. It's an absurd idea: classifying a student puts the district on the hook for more services, which cost more money. It's in a district's interest to not over classify students -- and that appears to be exactly what's happening in Chicago, where the special education rate is consistently (if slightly) below that of the rest of the county.
So that's the Chicago student population: many more children at-risk, lots of ELL students, a sizable special education population, and a likely concentration of poverty within the public schools that is greater than that for the entire city.
Now, we know that students who are at-risk and have special needs need more resources in their schools if they are ever going to achieve parity in outcomes with more affluent students. We know that, within the last couple of decades, our country has demanded higher standards and higher achievement for all students, no matter their background.
So how much has Chicago spent on its schools over the years?
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How much do Chicago schools spend?
Comparing spending across school districts and across time is tricky. There are the obvious differences in the cost of living, and those affect wages in different places and at different times. But there are also differences brought on by enrollment sizes and grade levels served. Let's look at spending a few different ways.
We'll start with a straightforward comparison in total per pupil spending, adjusted across time by the Comparable Wage Index developed by Lori Taylor so we get our figures in constant dollars. Data here is from the US Census Bureau.
Across time, CPS has consistently spent less per pupil than its neighboring school districts. But that doesn't take into account the economies of scale CPS may leverage as a large district. It also doesn't account for the fact that many districts in Cook County are either K-8 districts, or high school districts.
Here's a simple regression-adjusted comparison, using a model that accounts for differences in enrollment and grade levels.
Spending is comparable, but I have some misgivings. One is that Chicago's enrollment is so big compared to the rest of the county it's difficult to model how that might affect spending.** And it's not really fair to "penalize" Chicago for having such a large student population; that's a policy choice, arguably out of the city's control.
Here's another model, this time adjusted only by grade levels:
At worst, Chicago's schools spend less per pupil than the rest of the county; at best, they spend about the same when accounting for differences in grade levels and size.
But don't forget: Chicago's schools have many more at-risk and ELL students. Where is any extra fiscal effort on the part of the state -- or anyone else -- to help Chicago's schools educate so many children with special needs?
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How do these differences in spending and students play out in Chicago's schools?
This can play out in a couple of different ways: a school can reduce student-to-staff ratios, which would lower class sizes and allow for more individualized instruction. Or a school can get better-qualified staff: fewer inexperienced teachers, for example.
Of course, when you're a district like Chicago, you may not be able to get the same quality or quantity of staff for the same price as your more affluent neighbors. Teachers may have to travel farther to get to schools in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Working conditions may be more difficult, and the stresses of teaching at-risk students may be greater.
So let's keep in mind the differences in spending and students we've explored as we look at the current conditions of CPS.
Again, the data is noisy, but the picture is clear across time: CPS has consistently had a larger student-to-teacher ratio than its Cook County neighbors -- even as the district enrolls many more at-risk students.
Are the teachers in CPS more experienced?
CPS has many more inexperienced teachers on its staff than its neighboring districts. We know that teachers gain the most in effectiveness in their first few years of teaching. And yet CPS, with its much larger at-risk student population, sends more inexperienced teachers into its classroom than its neighbors.
Again: what's causing this disparity?
CPS spends about $1,500 less per pupil on instructional salaries than the rest of Cook County's districts, and about $2,000 less on total salaries. Again: this is in spite of the fact that CPS has many more at-risk and ELL students proportionally than its neighboring districts.
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What they don't want you to consider, however, is that there seems to be more money for Winnetka's schools, with their much more affluent families. Northfield's schools also get more funding. It doesn't look like it's "impossible" to get New Trier's schools additional money, even when their student population has far fewer at-risk children than CPS.
Understand, I don't blame those communities for spending what they do on their schools. I teach in an affluent school district; I appreciate that the community values its schools enough to fund them properly. But inequities in school funding are real, and they can't be blamed on middle-class teachers, working in big cities, who have taken on the most challenging assignments.
Chicago's schools, enrolling many at-risk students, are chronically underfunded -- and that is not the fault of its teachers.
Keep this in mind in the days ahead. See who has the courage to tell the good people of Illinois the truth about their schools. Ask those who demand that Chicago's teachers give up even more of their compensation whether they're ready to have an honest conversation about the chronic inequality running rampant in the state's education funding system.
Yeah, that's not really our thing...
ADDING: Bruce Baker has written several posts over the years about the inequities visited upon Chicago's schools: see here, here, and here for starters. And check out this graphic, which pretty much says it all.
* As always: Bruce is my advisor in the PhD program at Rutgers GSE.
** Better to use a national model, like here.