Proposed cuts to special education would hit hard in Chicago

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Advocates and CPS officials are stunned by a proposal to cut CPS’ state funds for special education by 25 percent next year and to drastically change the way the district’s services are funded. The proposal will be presented to the Special Education Task Force on Monday in Springfield. CPS CEO Ron Huberman is sending a representative to the meeting, which a leading activist, Rod Estvan of Access Living, will also attend.

The cut would amount to a $54 million loss next year.

“We are watching this closely and are working with advocates to make our case that this will hurt us tremendously,” says CPS Budget Director Christina Herzog. She points out that CPS is already facing a budget deficit projected to be as big as $900 million next year.

Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover says that the proposal is just that and stressed that nothing has been decided yet. The proposal calls for CPS to stop receiving a lump sum from the state for special education, and instead, have the district bill the state for services. All other school districts in Illinois are funded through this type of claim-based system.

Logistically, changing to a claims-based system will be extremely difficult, says Herzog. Also, the state only covers a small amount of the personnel costs of other districts, while CPS uses most of its block grant to pay for teachers and aides.

The proposal acknowledges that it would be impossible for CPS to start billing the state immediately and suggests that the change not go into effect until 2013.

However, until then, the proposal calls for a reduction of the block grant by 25 percent each year. That would result in over $200 million a year by 2013. 

CPS’ special education budget is about $850 million, with $450 million coming from the state, about $200 million from the federal government and the rest from the district’s general operating budget. 

The special education funding task force was formed by the legislature in 2007. Twenty-five state representatives and one state senator sponsored the bill, but only one lawmaker from Chicago—Esther Golar—attached her name to it at the last minute. Most of those supporting the bill were from the suburbs of Chicago, like Glenview, or downstate.

The task force was facilitated by Thomas Parrish, the head of the Center for Special Education Finance in Palo Alto, California. Legislators wanted the task force to help them find a way to ease the financial burden on school districts for special education. Herzog and Estvan say they were unaware that the task force was also going to tackle equity with a plan to redistribute money to other districts.

Estvan notes that the recommended cuts do not make sense, especially because most of the money saved is not going to be redistributed to other districts.

Herzog adds that while CPS might be getting more money, it has a greater share of special education students and a proportionately higher financial burden.

The block grant originated as the result of negotiations in 1995 when the state wanted Mayor Richard M. Daley to take over the school system. Also, the federal Corey H. lawsuit, which was settled by the district in 1998 and required more mainstreaming of special education students, called for stable funding for CPS.

Estvan says neither he nor the district were expecting these recommendations. Then, last week, a draft report was distributed, as was a summary of the proposal.