Earlier this year, the Chicago Board of Education’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released its annual report, which notes, “In Fiscal Year 2022, the OIG received 1,825 complaints alleging misconduct, waste, fraud and financial mismanagement at Chicago Public Schools [CPS], including allegations of adult-on-student sexual misconduct and other misconduct by CPS employees and vendors.”
For the sake of brevity, let’s focus on the three most alarming red flags identified by the report: rampant adult-on-student sexual abuse, extensive fraud concerning the spending of pandemic relief funds, and persistent miscoding of truant students as transfers.
It is only a matter of time before Chicago reaches the tipping point in which public schools will finally have to compete with private schools and all other educational alternatives on an even playing field.
Obviously, the most disconcerting allegation is the apparent widespread sexual abuse inflicted by CPS staff on students. In fiscal year 2022, the OIG received 470 complaints about alleged sexual abuse, including 81 instances of inappropriate touching, 35 of grooming, 33 of sexual abuse, and 26 of sexual acts.
As the report notes, adult-on-student sexual abuse has been a longstanding problem within CPS. In fact, over the past four years, the OIG’s Sexual Allegations Unit (SAU) has opened 1,735 cases. To date, the SAU has closed 1,384 of those cases. However, it has found “policy violations” in only 302. Even more incredibly, only 16 have resulted in criminal charges.
Perhaps most concerning is that even when the SAU found ample evidence of sexual abuse, CPS repeatedly ignored the findings, dismissed the SAU’s recommended actions, and gave the staff members a slap on the wrist. In one example, in which a high school teacher was accused of grooming and the evidence overwhelmingly supported strict disciplinary measures (“The OIG recommended termination of the teacher’s employment and placement of a ‘Do Not Hire’ designation in his personnel file”), CPS decided to give the perpetrator a “Last Chance Agreement, issued a second warning, and made him complete additional training prior to reinstatement.”
If extensive adult-on-student sexual-abuse allegations are not enough to make CPS clean up its act, how about the fact that it has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic relief funds on unwarranted teacher bonuses?
Overall, CPS received $2.8 billion in federal pandemic relief funding, which was supposed to be spent on pressing projects such as upgrading HVAC systems. Alas, to date, CPS has spent $1.49 billion of its emergency relief money, with a whopping 77 percent of that amount going to “employee salaries and benefits.”
Unsurprisingly, CPS has a long track record of funneling money to its employees in the forms of “Extra Pay,” “Stipends,” and “Overtime.” Per the report: “In 2021, Extra Pay hit nearly $74 million — a 17 percent increase from the most recent pre-pandemic calendar year of 2019. Over five years, Extra Pay jumped 74 percent — far more than the average teacher’s salary rose over a similar five-year period.”
In other words, CPS has been caught red-handed using federal COVID-19 relief funds to pad their employees’ paychecks rather than using that money for its intended purpose of addressing the adverse academic impacts wrought by public school closures during the pandemic.
Lastly, the report details the ongoing malfeasance concerning “Persistent Miscoding of Student Transfer and Lost Child Data.” In a nutshell, CPS has a bad history of “deliberately miscod[ing] students who were truant as transfers or lost children so that these students’ absences would not count against the school’s attendance rate.”
In 2021, the OIG uncovered more than 5,000 “unverified out-of-district transfers districtwide.” Why does this matter? First, far too many of these unverified transfers eventually get “lost” in the system, meaning they do not enroll in a new school, as they are required to do by law. Second, there is a financial incentive to misreport because schools receive more money if their attendance and graduation rates remain above certain thresholds.
By no means is the OIG report an exhaustive list of all the problems that have manifested in CPS over recent years. Aside from the issues highlighted in the report, CPS is abysmally failing to sufficiently educate the more than 320,000 students it is responsible for.
Last year, CPS spent a record-setting $29,000 per student. On the other hand, the top 20 private schools in the Windy City spent on average $11,442 per student. What’s more, these private schools stayed open for in-person learning throughout the pandemic, their students consistently outperform their public school peers, and incidents of sexual abuse are almost nonexistent.
If ever there were a time for Chicago families to demand universal school choice, wherein funds are allotted directly to students instead of government-run schools, it is now. School choice is a nonpartisan issue that is widely supported by almost all demographic groups, particularly among minority families who are all too often stuck sending their kids to poor-performing schools based solely upon their ZIP codes.
If there is any reason for optimism, consider this: Over the past 11 years, CPS enrollment has been in a precipitous decline. Almost every year, data show that thousands of students are fleeing CPS and enrolling in private or charter schools or being homeschooled. Throughout the nation, the school-choice revolution is gaining momentum. It is only a matter of time before Chicago reaches the tipping point in which public schools will finally have to compete with private schools and all other educational alternatives on an even playing field. That is what school choice is all about, and the results show that it works.
Chris Talgo (email@example.com) is editorial director at The Heartland Institute.