Charters seek more cash for special needs students

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Charter school operators have long complained that the district undercuts them when it comes to funding for special education students and are pushing CPS for more equitable funding.

Illinois Network for Charter Schools President Andrew Broy says that the issue is one of the last remaining negotiation points for a charter-district compact now in the works. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is pushing these compacts nationally, to encourage cooperation and collaboration between charter and traditional schools.

“It is a tough issue,” Broy says. Charter schools want more money, but they also want to keep their autonomy. And CPS faces substantial budget deficits in coming years.

When charter schools originally came on the scene, they were given two options: Have CPS special education teachers in their schools or take $65,000 to hire their own teachers. But two years ago, charters were told to hire all their own teachers.

Maureen Komperda, the CPS director of special education for charter schools, says that CPS teachers, whose hours are set by the teachers’ union contract and who are hired by the district, simply did not work out for charters, which typically have longer school days and different schedules.

“It made much more sense for charters to hire their own teachers,” Komperda says.

This past summer, Komperda also suggested to charter schools that they hire their own clinicians, such as psychiatrists and occupational therapists.

Charter school operators say they like having their own special education teachers and many of them have brought on clinicians. But both are expensive. And while CPS reimburses charter schools for the time clinicians are needed, based on students’ needs, charters themselves must pay for any additional time.

Broy says large charter networks can often support their own clinicians. But smaller or one-campus charters might need to form partnerships to make clinicians financially feasible.

Allison Slade, principal and co-founder of Namaste Charter School, notes that the $65,000 provided by CPS includes benefits, leaving a salary of just $45,000 for a teacher in a high-demand area. To be competitive, Slade sometimes has to pay more.

Nearly 20 percent of Namaste’s students have special needs—a lot not just for charter schools, but among all schools. The school’s base per-pupil spending is about $10,000. Namaste receives an average of $7,500 per student from the district, but they must supplement the rest with private money. Plus, each special education student requires, on average, another $1,000, she notes.

Namaste also stretches its budget to pay for a full-time case manager to write Individual Education Plans for special needs students. Materials are another cost. Namaste has a learning lab, chock-full of manipulatives, books and other objects proven to help students with disabilities learn.

One winter day, a group of children sit around a table as a bilingual special education teacher goes over the days of the week. In another corner, a teacher reads with child, who sits on a special blue foam cushion that allows him to move around while sitting, to help him concentrate. Another young boy sits in front of a computer, listening with headphones.

“All of this is expensive,” Slade says.