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Cheryl Connor, the mother of three students at Sabin Dual Language Magnet School, first heard of Chicago Public Schools’ Opportunity Index this spring when she learned her Northwest Side campus faced a tighter budget for the coming school year.

The district overhauled its approach to budgeting this year, aiming to downplay enrollment size as a factor, provide all schools with certain base positions – and steer more dollars to schools serving the city’s most vulnerable students. The index, which factors student demographics, neighborhood metrics, and historical funding data into a single score, is the tool officials used to quantify each school’s level of need.

Giving more to schools that need more is a worthy goal, some experts said. But it comes at a complicated time, as the district faces enrollment instability and a deficit brought on by the end of federal COVID recovery money, meaning officials are taking from some campuses to give others a boost.

The budget shift is especially challenging to pull off in a district with both large campuses and a growing number of very small schools, experts said.

First designed in 2021, Chicago’s Opportunity Index came under newly intense scrutiny this spring after it took center stage in setting student-to-teacher ratios and discretionary funding in school budgets. District leaders and some principals have hailed the index as an innovative tool that is allowing Chicago to rectify long-standing campus funding inequities.

But some parents and school leaders have questioned whether their schools’ scores fairly reflect their needs — and argued district officials haven’t done enough to demystify the formula for families and even principals.

At Sabin, Connor applauded the district’s equity goal. But, she wondered, didn’t her own school have higher needs than its middle-of-the-pack Opportunity Index number would suggest? It’s in well-off Wicker Park, but it draws largely low-income students of color from outside the neighborhood, including a recent influx of migrant students.

“To figure out which schools have more needy families and need more support — that’s a great idea,” Connor said. “I don’t think it worked out for Sabin.”

Chicago Public Schools officials said this week the district, which faces an almost $400 million deficit, will delay the release of its full budget until after the start of the fiscal year in July. That will allow more time to “do further diligence since the budget model is new and being implemented for the first time.”

How was the Opportunity Index created?

Under former CPS CEO Janice Jackson, the district’s then-new Office of Equity set out to develop a way to capture gaps in access to opportunities for students. On the eve of the pandemic, the district used a neighborhood “hardship index” developed by researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago to allocate so-called “equity grants” at campuses grappling with major enrollment declines.

But the district still wanted to come up with its own metric reflecting school demographics and needs.

So officials approached the University of Illinois Chicago for help. Timothy Imeokparia, the associate director of research and planning at UIC’s Great Cities Institute, said he and others did extensive research to weigh in on a list of metrics the district was considering. CPS officials incorporated some of that feedback into the new index, such as including a metric that gives extra points to racially segregated schools, where research shows students tend to do worse.

But officials didn’t take other suggestions. For instance, researchers didn’t think community life expectancy is particularly relevant to the experience of children, and they recommended considering other key factors such as parents’ education level, Imeokparia said.

In the end, CPS settled on 12 indicators. Schools get between one and five points for each indicator. Added together, each campus is given an index score between 12 and 60. Explore Opportunity Index data for all schools here.

The district unveiled the Opportunity Index in 2021 as part of its pandemic recovery plan dubbed “Moving Forward Together,” which spelled out how CPS would distribute $500 million of the $2.8 billion it got in federal COVID relief money.

When the district rolled out its new way of calculating school budgets this spring, it was clear the Opportunity Index would play a much higher-stakes role. For example, elementary schools with high scores would get one teacher for every 22 students while those with lower ones get an educator for every 26 students. A higher index also means more discretionary money principals can spend as they see fit and better odds of receiving an instructional coach, a restorative justice coordinator, and an additional counselor, among other support positions.

Is the Opportunity Index capturing all of a school’s needs?

Connor, the local school council head at Sabin Dual Language Magnet, says she feels the index didn’t adequately capture her campus’s needs.

Take the portion of students who qualify for Medicaid but are not enrolled in the program — the higher the number, the more points a school gets for its index. Connor said in recent years, parents and staff at the school went all-out in a bid to ensure eligible families enroll in the health coverage program. Now, Connor said it feels as though the district is penalizing the school for these efforts — and creating a disincentive to encourage more district families to enroll.

Or take the portion of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Connor says the district used a percentage captured before the school’s deadline for collecting income forms from families, when staffers were still scrambling to gather that information.

More generally, experts have said that the metric is becoming a less reliable measure of poverty, amid a growing number of universal lunch programs such as Chicago’s and immigrant concerns about providing income information.

All in all, Sabin’s index of 30 places the school in the same group as elementaries with much smaller portions of students of color, low-income, and homeless students, Connor said. Drummond, a nearby magnet school, has an only slightly lower index. With a student body that’s roughly half white, Drummond serves 14% low-income students compared to Sabin’s almost 90%, and 8% English learners compared to Sabin’s almost 30%.

Under the calculation, Connor said, Sabin was slated to receive six fewer teachers this year. The district provided another three educators after school leaders appealed to the budget office. That’s something the district did for dozens of other schools: The formula didn’t work for some campuses, sometimes failing to provide enough educators to staff all classrooms. Still, Sabin has to use all but $20,000 of its discretionary funds to save the other three positions. That means it might need to charge students to play sports, among other changes.

A Chalkbeat analysis of Opportunity Index and staffing allocations in the 2024-25 school budgets the district released in late May shows that for the schools with the highest and lowest indexes, the metric seemed predictive of staffing changes: Campuses with the highest indexes tended to get extra staff in next year’s budgets compared with staffing levels last summer, and those with the lowest indexes tended to gain fewer staff, or even lose positions.

When looking at schools in the middle of the pack, however, the relationship between a school’s Opportunity Index and staffing becomes less clear, especially at the high school level.

Across the board, there are numerous examples of high-index schools that will lose positions, and schools with lower indexes that will gain some, as enrollment continues to play a role in budgets.

One elementary principal said he felt the district was responsive to school leader concerns and generally rounded up staffing numbers when campuses were near the cutoff based on their opportunity indexes. His school got a second interventionist — an educator who works closely with struggling students — thanks to the formula.

“I’ve been on the negative side of budgets for a long time,” he said. “To me, it feels like a relief.”

Overall, at least 150 of Chicago’s more than 500 district-run public schools will see staffing cuts in the fall, according to a recent Chalkbeat analysis.

A CPS spokesperson said comparing staffing levels to the previous year “does not properly reflect resources allocated to our schools,” because principals used to have much more discretion over staffing, and now schools get a set number of staff positions. The district has vowed that overall staff in schools and funding in school budgets won’t go down.

Has the district done enough to explain its index?

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez has said concerns about school budgets have come from a relatively small number of “outlier” campuses, often selective enrollment schools with a wide range of elective courses.

One principal said it doesn’t make sense that metrics shaping a school’s experience in a profound way, such as student poverty, are given the same weight in the Opportunity Index as other factors that seem a step removed, such as community life expectancy.

In a district with both tiny and packed schools, low-income students might represent a relatively small portion of all students on some large campuses but still be a fairly sizable group: “Poor students in a large richer school can end up with too few resources.”

Some say the district needs to do more communication and engagement around the index.

One school leader said they traveled to a national education conference in San Diego with roughly a dozen principals in April and attended a session with the district’s chief education officer, Bogdana Chkoumbova. She presented on Chicago’s equity efforts in a conversation with Nick Freeman, a former Chicago Public Schools data strategist who had gone on to co-found Innovare, a company the district enlisted to design an Opportunity Index dashboard.

Some of the principals were taken aback because they had never gotten the detailed look at how the index was calculated that the San Diego presentation offered.

“Principals had been asking these questions for a while,” the principal who spoke with Chalkbeat on a condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by the district to talk with the press said. “It makes no sense that we are presenting this work to people outside the district when people within the district directly affected by it have never seen it.”

Kia Banks, the chief of staff of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association and the principal at Vanderpoel Humanities Academy, a magnet on Chicago’s South Side, said she wishes school leaders had gotten training on the index and a chance to review the metrics with district officials.

She feels her school’s index reflects the school’s wealthier Beverly neighborhood, even as it draws students from across the South Side. The school received points for serving an almost entirely Black student body, but it has no English learners and relatively small number of students with disabilities, which lowered its score.

Overall, the district’s budget shift left Banks with much less flexibility than in previous years and a tight discretionary pot after she dipped into it to preserve a dean of students position.

Those are concerns the association — the district’s school leader union — heard from its members more broadly, said Troy LaRaviere, the president of CPAA: “As we talk about which schools are getting more, we are missing the big picture that none of these schools are getting enough.”

District said it plans to continue using the index to improve funding equity.

“This strategic allocation helps create more equitable school budgets, ultimately fostering stronger and healthier school communities for all students,” the district said in a statement.

A number of other large urban districts, such as Boston and Los Angeles, have introduced their own indexes for capturing schools’ needs in recent years, though often used more narrowly, said Qubilah Huddleston, an expert on equitable school funding at the think tank Education Trust.

The nonprofit published a 2022 study showing that more often than not, districts across the country still budget in a way that doesn’t fully take into account diverging student needs, leaving high-need schools at a disadvantage.

But Huddleston said the shift can be challenging in this moment of financial instability. In Washington, D.C.,the district also tried out a budget model that provided a base number of staff for each school. But in a district that, like Chicago, has both severely underenrolled and large schools, the shift was rocky, and eventually, D.C. embraced a more hybrid budgeting formula.

“Districts are really hamstrung in pursuing multiple goals,” said Huddleston. “These formulas are designed to improve equity. The challenge is when you don’t have enough kids in the building.”

Huddleston said she also has concerns about private fundraising playing a larger part in closing budget gaps — traditionally, a symbol of funding inequities nationally. Chicago district officials have said campuses can lean on their “Friends of” groups and other fundraising to supplement budgets.

Imeokparia, the UIC professor who consulted on the index, said a flurry of efforts in some districts to push more resources to high-needs schools in the 1980s and ‘90s often fizzled out. They generated political backlash as better-off schools saw tighter budgets and as districts often struggled to show payoff, such as higher high school graduation rates, for campuses that got a boost.

Sticking with these efforts requires political will to weather pushback to taking from some schools to give more to others — and ideally an influx in funding to avoid doing that altogether, Imeokparia said.

“I think it’s a useful tool,” he said. “But the index is just a number. It’s up to the political system to come up with solutions to problems.”

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at