Special education tough to dissect

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When determining per-pupil figures for Renaissance and charter schools, CPS hit a snag. How would it come up with a fair rate for special education students?

Special education poses the stiffest challenge to per-pupil funding. With a wide range of disabilities and with multiple funding sources, it defies easy calculation.

“Special ed is tough,” says Pedro Martinez, the new budget director for CPS. “Right now, we’re just starting to dissect that.”

In all, the district spends about $750 million a year on 60,000 special education students. There are dozens of disabilities sorted by type, such as cognitive and behavioral disorders, and by severity within those types.

Excluding the most severe and expensive cases, which can cost up to $30,000 annually per student, CPS estimates that the additional per-pupil costs of special education range from $3,000 to $5,000, and officials say those figures can be further narrowed by factoring in how much special education time each student needs. Over the next year, CPS aims to further refine those estimates and make it easier for schools to estimate per-pupil needs.

A joint CPS-charter school task force is completing a detailed analysis of special education spending in existing charters, which now have two options to pay for special education: They can get a special education teacher from CPS, or they can be reimbursed up to $50,000 after hiring one of their own.

Next, the task force plans to compare charters’ special education spending to that of regular schools to set a fair per-pupil rate. CPS has also agreed to raise its cap on special education teacher salaries to $65,000, and promises to deliver by 2007 an online system that will streamline case management.

“That’s a real show of good faith,” says Elizabeth Delany-Purvis, executive director for Chicago Charter School Foundation, which manages seven campuses of Chicago International Charter Schools. “Our goal is to police ourselves to make sure special ed needs are ethically, legally and morally met. And to make sure charters are getting a fair cut.”

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to myers@catalyst-chicago.org.