Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s oversight of the Chicago Public Schools is shaping up to be a flashpoint in his 2019 reelection bid, especially after a recent Chicago Tribune investigation highlighted the district’s failure to protect students from sexual abuse by school workers.
One challenger to Emanuel is Troy LaRaviere, the head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association and a onetime CPS elementary school principal himself who has long been a vocal critic of the mayor.
LaRaviere, in a recent blog post, sought to connect the dots between the Tribune’s findings and staffing shortages at CPS.
"Under Emanuel, CPS has become the most understaffed school district in Illinois," LaRaviere wrote, going on to suggest that key elements of a quality education, including student safety, are more likely to slip through the cracks with less staff around.
LaRaviere’s claim about safety is speculation. But his assertion about staffing levels is something concrete and led us to wonder: Is CPS really dead last in the state when it comes to staffing? If so, that would seem to contradict a common narrative about an unwieldy bureaucratic bloat at CPS.
So we decided to take a look.
To support his claim, LaRaviere pointed us to data from the Illinois State Board of Education listing the pupil-to-staff ratio for each district in the state. That figure includes teachers, administrators and professional staff like counselors, librarians and nurses certified by the state to work with students.
The state dataset shows CPS has fewer staff members per student than all but two of the more than 850 school districts in Illinois. It was tied for second-to-last with Lincoln Way Community High School District in suburban New Lenox. In last place was a tiny elementary district in downstate Breese, 40 miles east of St. Louis.
In 2016, the average student-to-staff ratio for all Illinois school districts was 11-to-one. At CPS it was more than 16-to-one.
The state data also show that CPS’ ranking has worsened under Emanuel. In the 2010-11 school year, the last under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, CPS staffing levels were low but still better than 79 other districts in the state.
In other words, LaRaviere’s claim checks out.
Still, that raises a question: How did CPS staffing slip so far even as its spending per pupil outpaces the state average by $2,000?
LaRaviere sees that conundrum as evidence CPS is wasting money because of unsound financial policies that drain resources to pay for adequate staffing.
But experts also point to other, less politically fraught, explanations.
Andy Crosby, a professor of public administration at Pace University in New York said urban districts are more likely to serve students from low-income backgrounds who may require additional resources to educate. Districts in large urban areas, he said, typically pay teachers higher salaries to compensate for increased cost of living as well.
But he also pointed to U.S. Census data showing Chicago was far from the biggest spender among large urban school districts. In 2015, the data show, New York City spent roughly $22,000 per student while Chicago spent less than $14,000.
Illinois data, meanwhile, show that Chicago’s per-student spending may be above average, yet there are many districts in the state that spend far more.
Another factor to consider when weighing spending at CPS is the looming shadow of high pension costs. Prior to changes made by state lawmakers last year, CPS bore the entire expense of funding the employer share of pensions for its teachers and staff. All other districts in Illinois relied on state taxpayers to pick up their pension tab.
Rebecca Hendrick, a professor of public administration at the University of Illinois-Chicago, suggested the pension overhang could be putting pressure on the district to lower operating costs to free up funds for pension payments. Those payments ramped up significantly during Emanuel’s second term as a consequence of years of contribution deferrals that began under Daley.
A recent Tribune investigation revealed CPS’ failure to protect students from sexual abuse by district employees. LaRaviere suggested staffing levels could have played a role in that scandal, saying that, "under Emanuel, CPS has become the most understaffed school district in Illinois."
The correlation LaRaviere sought to make is impossible to prove. However, his claim about low staff-to-student ratios lies on firmer ground.
Data from the Illinois State Board of Education show that last year CPS employed just one staffer—teachers, administrators and other trained professionals—for every 16 students. The statewide average was one per every 11.
By that measure, CPS tied for second to worst in the state. Technically speaking then, CPS is not the most understaffed in the state as LaRaviere says.
It is almost the most understaffed, a quibbling distinction that might bear relevance in math class or on the debate club but is besides the point for purposes of evaluating the credibility of his claim. We rate it True.