Citing ‘flawed formula,’ CPS backtracks on special ed cuts

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File photo from August protest of district cuts to special education.

Photo by Max Herman

File photo from August protest of district cuts to special education.

After a “thorough review” of planned cuts to special education services, Chicago Public Schools officials announced Wednesday that the district would restore dozens of positions and bring total staffing to a level higher than last year.

The decision comes after 260 schools appealed their staffing allocations, and advocates for students with special needs warned CPS the district could face lawsuits if students went without federally mandated services.

In all, the district is adding 147 positions over the total number of special education staffers who were in place at the end of last year: 122 teachers and 25 aides. (See spreadsheet provided by CPS here.)

Much of that increase is coming at just over 400 regular district-run schools that receive special education positions directly from CPS. A subset of about 100 schools receive funding for special education on a per-pupil basis under a new program called All Means All. CPS has not released comparable data on specialty, alternative or charter schools.

On the 10th day of school, regular district-run schools were projected to lose 16.5 teachers and 52.5 aides. After appeals, those schools are gaining 145 teachers and 98.5 aides.

In a statement, district officials acknowledged that they used a “flawed funding formula” earlier this year in determining staffing levels for special education. CPS officials declined to elaborate, saying only that “we’ll be happy to discuss the formula in coming months, as we revise our process to make it a more bottom-up approach next year.”

Educators and activists breathed a sigh of relief at the news. They had worried about how schools would be able to handle more cuts and still deliver the services that are required legally for students with Individualized Education Plans (known as IEPs).

“It’s clearly an acknowledgement that they had messed up in a big way with the cuts they’d announced earlier,” says Wendy Katten, of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand. “ I think that they probably were aware they would be violating many IEPs had they gone through with these cuts… Special education, you just don’t mess with that.”

Background on cuts

District officials first announced major cuts to special education over the summer, when they claimed an 18-month review found that CPS “currently exceeds the state’s standards for special education staffing.” District officials have never produced any documents substantiating that such a review took place.

Schools learned about the extent of cuts when the CPS budget was unveiled in August.

But then in September, the district announced another round of cuts to general education and special education at schools that did not meet enrollment projections. There was an immediate outcry from educators, parents and activists who said mid-year cuts to special education were unprecedented.

As a result, CPS officials agreed to delay the cuts and allow principals to appeal. District officials said 260 schools filed appeals but would not say how many of those were granted.

Based on 10th-day enrollment figures, South Loop Elementary was slated to gain a half-time special education teaching position and lose two aides. Principal Tara Shelton and the school’s counselor went over how many minutes every student with an IEP needed with a special education teacher or aide.

”When they first announced the cuts, I started putting my evidence together,” Shelton says. “I had my paperwork in really early, and then when they began to review everyone’s case, I was able to get an edge on the other applicants.”

Every one of the threatened positions at the school was saved — and then some. She’s getting two additional teachers and three aides.

“I think it’s a victory now only because the process wasn’t done correctly,” Shelton says.

Amidst the controversy over the special education cuts, Markay Winston, who heads the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services, tendered her resignation. That office is now being run by Kathleen Foley in an interim capacity while Winston uses up her vacation and sick time.

Advocates for students with disabilities have asked the district to release the names of the top five candidates for Winston’s job and to have a voice in picking her replacement.

Some schools still losing

Not all schools are keeping the positions that were threatened earlier this year. A Catalyst analysis of the data on regular district-run schools (excluding alternative and specialty schools) that receive their positions from CPS shows that since the 10th day of school:

  • 99 schools, half of them on the South Side, are losing at least one staffer. About a third of those are high schools. Impacted staff will be notified by Dec. 7, district officials say.
  • Nine schools, spread evenly across the city, are losing four or more positions.
  • 187 schools gained at least one staffer. Nearly all were elementary schools, and most were clustered on the South and North sides.
  • 32 schools, almost all elementary schools on the North and South sides, gained at least four positions.

Katie Osgood, a special education teacher at Langston Hughes Elementary on the South Side, was relieved to learn her school won’t lose the three aide positions that had been threatened earlier this fall.

“We were absolutely justified in every single position,” Osgood said. “There’s no way we can function in losing any aide.”

In her own classroom of 12 students, Osgood has the help of three aides. Two of them work specifically with two students who require one-to-one assistance. The other helps the rest of the class. “If they had taken the aides, there’s no way I could possibly get to everybody,” Osgood said. “It would have been against the law.”

Other types of schools

It’s harder to say what the impact of the budget “realignment” will be on schools under the “All Means All” funding formula. Some schools joined the pilot this year, so it’s impossible to make year-over-year comparisons using the data provided by CPS.

Among the 19 schools that had two years’ worth of funding data, about half gained some money over last year, and half lost funds. Overall, the total lost was just under $1.2 million.

One of those schools is DePriest Elementary, which is losing about $90,000 over last  year despite gaining five special education students.

Tammie Vinson, a special education teacher at the West Side school, says the new funding formula is not working for DePriest. “Our students aren’t being covered correctly,” she said. Vinson says she has two students “who should have dedicated aides that do not…..We’re encouraging parents to reach out to the board, the network, the state to complain that their children are not getting their services.”

Because CPS did not release data earlier this year on specialty schools, which serve mostly students with disabilities, it’s tough to get a clear picture of how principal appeals affected staffing levels there. But there’s been a year-over-year decline at more than half of those 10 schools.

For example, Vaughn Occupational High School lost four teachers and five and a half aides — the highest that any school lost over last year. Teachers and parents at Vaughn had publicly protested even larger cuts — five teachers and 23 aides — that had been planned in August. By working together and documenting students’ IEP needs, Vaughn’s principal, staff and parents were able to win back some positions.

Meanwhile, charter schools also had an appeals process for special education cuts that started later than district-run schools. Their results are being finalized and will be communicated in coming weeks, CPS officials say.

  • Concerned Parent

    Schools on the horrid all means all budget were forced on to it – there was no choice for them. Cuts were also made due to ama. CPS, with Rahm as its head, are experts at withholding and spinning information. Do we not see how CPS muddy special ed positions/budget purposefully in a planned manner?

    Here is an example: still no information on charter school final students enrollment. bet is never gets released. Something to hide?

  • Concerned Parent

    Winston using sick time when she is not sick is against CPS policy. She should have to lose it like everyone else. How nice of them to allow her to break the rules and as they pay her with tax payers dollars & $ from serving students.

  • Jeanne Marie Olson

    Schools didn’t voluntarily join “All Means All”…they were told that they were part of the “pilot”. No choice given. You know that, right?

  • Concerned Parent

    Compensatory Services to students due to this fiasco? CPS’s habit is cutting, then seeing if any one notices. ODLSS’s horrid budget cuts were noticed! Would anyone disagree that CPS uses a strategy of diminishing returns?

    They saved money by not providing services to students since 9/8. Litigation is not worth the time and CPS gets away with this. Will the Department of Civil Rights step in and warn CPS? So they get away with this.
    Diverse learners have to take NWEA, which cannot be read to diverse learners, which reduces each schools SQRP level, which in turn creates sanctions against the schools to support teacher removal, closer or worse, open a charter near by for an even slower painful death.

    Can Rahm be recalled? Impeached?

  • Karma

    It has been my experience that are quite a few undiagnosed “diverse learners” among the so-called regular or gen ed population in schools. Enough with cute jargon for special ed and more attention to diagnosing students accurately.

  • Bruce_William_Smith

    A crucial question is this: how can Chicago Public Schools regain the trust of its public so as to avoid bankruptcy?

  • J.

    “Flawed formula”? But that’s what I’ve been TRYING to TELL EVERYONE in the first place!

    Hats off to all of the parents and orgs for the squeaky wheel-ness. No kudos for CPS for doing what they should have been in the first place.