Parents, Teachers Blast Special Education Funding in Latest CPS Budget

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool speaks during the Chicago Board of Education meeting Wednesday. (Chicago Tonight)CPS CEO Forrest Claypool speaks during the Chicago Board of Education meeting Wednesday. (Chicago Tonight)

Chicago Public Schools teachers and parents blasted the district's plan for special education funding in its budget for the coming year, saying it pits students against each other in a "Hunger Games"-esque struggle for school resources.

The district has chosen in its 2017 budget to commingle general and special education class funding into a single allocation. But critics have said that will not only make dollars more difficult to track, it could also put those programs at odds with each other when it comes to resources, funding and scheduling.

Special education advocates delivered a letter co-signed by nearly 600 local school council members Wednesday morning to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office decrying that move as well as a 4-percent special education funding holdback they say puts schools in a “terrible position.”

“If this commingling of funds is allowed to continue, special education funding will be untrackable and nontransparent to the detriment of all students,” Jennie Biggs, a local school council member at Sheridan Elementary, said Wednesday morning at City Hall. “The commingling of special education funds and general education funds is pitting special education versus general education programs in a ‘Hunger Games’ manner, which is not healthy for our schools.”

CPS officials have repeatedly said they both schedule special education students and fund their individualized education plans (IEPs) first to ensure resources are available and that it upholds “the least restrictive environment” possible for these diverse learners. The district also says those withheld dollars will instead be used to accommodate in-year growth and student movement during the school year.

Those changes were included in its original fiscal year 2017 budget and were not changed in an amended version drafted to include CPS' new labor contract with the Chicago Teachers Union.

That version and the contract itself were both approved Wednesday by the Chicago Board of Education.

Number of CPS students requiring an individualized education plan. (Chicago Public Schools)

Though its enrollment has dropped by more than 20,000 students over the past five school years, both the number (52,093 students) and percentage (13.7) of diverse learners requiring IEPs within CPS have increased.

CPS says it has increased its per-student spending for its diverse learners by more than $1,600 – up to $12,665 – over that same period. The district has also repeatedly asked for any evidence showing IEPs aren’t being funded, but LSC members say that naming those students could violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

In a presentation to the board, Office of Diverse Learners Supports and Services Deputy Chief Elizabeth Keenan also highlighted racial disparities in the number of diverse learners. Twenty percent of African-American males and 18 percent of Hispanic male students within the district have IEPs, compared with 15 percent of white male students.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said the district needs to look into “racial bias” to explain this disparity, suggesting some of those students may only need social-emotional support or language support rather than an IEP.

“There is real, serious consequences to misdiagnosis in terms of the lives of these children,” he said, “and race clearly is something we have to look (at).”

The Chicago Teachers Union joined the LSC members in their call for change, publishing survey results Tuesday showing 90 percent of the 900 special education teachers, classroom assistants, clinicians and paraprofessionals who participated reported at least one major special education-related cut at their school.

“We have special education kids who are receiving literally zero services because schools are do short staffed,” CTU President Karen Lewis said in a press release. “This is no way to run a school district, and that’s, in part, because we have a governor who has no idea how to run this state.”

Nearly 50 percent of survey respondents said they had seen service minutes on student IEPs cut back to fit available resources, according to the survey, while 65 percent said they had lost at least one special education classroom assistant or paraprofessional.

CTU Financial Secretary Maria Moreno also claimed the district closed 600 special education vacancies – saying that alone represented a $60 million cut – despite the fact the number of diverse learners continues to rise.

In a letter sent to principals and LSC members late last month, Claypool and Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson pointed to a lack of state and federal special education funds that fall “well short” of the district’s needs.

CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson (Chicago Tonight)CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson (Chicago Tonight)

CPS budgeted $906 million for special education resources in fiscal year 2016, but spent more than $920 million. In the district’s fiscal 2017 budget that total has been increased to more than $923 million – with $465 million coming from a state block grant, $300 million coming from local tax dollars and about $100 million more in federal funding.

“We are taking more of a strategic approach to special education funding,” Jackson said Wednesday, “and making sure that as we distribute and allocate our limited resources that they’re actually going to the places they are needed.”

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