Ensuring equity for children who have special needs

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To paraphrase a common saying, sometimes a statistic is worth a thousand words.

As reporting for this issue of Catalyst In Depth unfolded, a telling statistic emerged (shown in the accompanying graphic). Its point: Racial disparity in CPS reaches down even into small-scale programs that fly under the radar.

In this case, the disparity is in the district’s program for placing children with more severe disabilities in private, therapeutic day schools, designed to provide optimal support for learning. These schools are expensive, and placements in them have plummeted from about 3,000 children in 2000 to just 850 now.

Advocates and lawyers for the disabled say that children who should be in day schools can only get placements from CPS if parents have the money to hire a lawyer to fight the battle. As the data show, white children have the best odds, Latino children the worst.

There’s another issue with placements: whether and how CPS pays for them. Part of the district’s special education block grant is meant to pay for day schools, but advocates say CPS banks part of that money. It’s easy to see why advocates are suspicious. This year, the district got $86 million for therapeutic schools, but even at the high end of the scale, $32,000 per student, that adds up to just $27 million for 850 children. CPS says part of the money is being spent on better classrooms and services inside the district for children with severe disabilities, but advocates don’t buy that either.

Finally, what about the money that is being spent? CPS pays day schools a lower per-pupil rate—$28,000 to $32,000—than the state’s rate of $38,000, which other school districts must pay.

In exchange for day schools agreeing to a lower rate, CPS pays “regardless of attendance or enrollment.” Where’s the accountability here?

There’s a fiscally responsible and credibility-enhancing solution at hand. Make CPS account for its special education spending, just as other districts do. Start with legislation proposed in Springfield to require CPS to testify every year about its budget in order to be eligible for block grants. The bill, HB3871, is now stuck in the Rules Committee, where legislation goes to die. But the concept is still alive and well in the Capitol. Stay tuned.

Charter schools have become part of the equation for special needs students. On paper, the charter philosophy of innovation and freedom seems tailor-made for creating and implementing new practices for special education students. But reality isn’t that clear-cut.

Charters usually have their own codes of conduct and place strong emphasis on discipline, and children with behavioral problems may find it hard to fit the mold. Special education advocates say that charters sometimes—subtly or not so subtly—dissuade parents from enrolling their children with special needs, or push them out when they can’t conform. At a symposium last year, CPS officials basically told charters they needed to get their act together regarding special education students.

As part of a charter-district compact now in the works, charters are seeking more money to educate children with special needs. But any change in funding should come with a new requirement to give some measure of neighborhood preference in enrollment. Community pressure has already won neighborhood preference at some charters. That should be the standard for all.

With all the angst and mistrust of charters in Chicago, what better way to reinforce the idea that they’re truly public schools, open to all—including children with special needs?

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Catalyst Chicago has won two awards in the prestigious national contest held by the Education Writers Association. Associate Editor Rebecca Harris won for her beat reporting on early childhood education, including the Summer 2011 issue of Catalyst In Depth, “The ABCs of Kindergarten.”  Deputy Editor Sarah Karp won for the Fall 2011 issue of Catalyst In Depth, “The Right Move?” on Marshall High’s first year as a turnaround school.

Every issue takes intensive work, including data analysis and on-the-ground, inside-schools reporting. But as these awards show, the end result is high-quality reporting and stories you won’t find anywhere else. If you value our reporting, in print and online, help support us by becoming a member. To learn more, go to www.catalyst-chicago.org/membership.