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  • Writer's pictureMo Buti


CHICAGO TRIBUNE: SPECIAL ED MAY BE CUT TO FUND GSA State Senator Andy Manar [Democrat from Bunker Hill] praised the ISBE's proposal to bolster state aid by using the special education money. "I think the board's actions are a step in the right direction," Manar said. State's school funding plan spurs concerns over cuts, special education by Diane Rado, Chicago Tribune

Almost half of school districts in Chicago's suburbs would lose money under a dramatic proposal to rejigger how the state divvies up money to public schools, with affluent districts targeted for cuts and less wealthy districts set to get more state aid.

To make it happen, the Illinois State Board of Education is proposing to take $305 million from an account designated for special education services and give that money to districts next school year for general expenses that may have nothing or little to do with kids with disabilities.

The idea is to boost "general" state aid for public schools in what the state board believes would be a more equitable way. Even without this source of funding for special education, districts would be expected to continue covering those costs as required by law. The General Assembly would have to approve the changes.

The proposal has spurred confusion and concern as districts grapple with the bottom line. The state's analysis shows that 641 districts would gain $339 million under the proposal, including Chicago Public Schools, while 211 districts would lose $29.5 million. Those figures are based on 2015-16 calculations.

But two-thirds of those losing districts are in the Chicago suburbs, making up $26.6 million of the loss felt statewide. Those districts would no longer get dollars from the $305 million portion of the special education account, and they'd lose general state aid dollars as well, likely meaning that something will have to be cut to make ends meet.

"It stinks," said Wheaton-based Community Unit School District 200 Superintendent Jeffrey Schuler. His district stands to lose about $843,000, according to an ISBE analysis.

Database: See how funding for your school district could change [online]

Meanwhile, special education advocates are trying to understand the consequences of yanking money that has historically been set aside to serve schoolchildren with special needs.

"I think when school districts are faced with the kind of financial situations they're in, the question is, will services for children with disabilities be hurt, and I believe they will," said longtime special education advocate Beverley Holden Johns.

"The state is in a budget crisis — I understand that. But it is crazy to put that on the backs of children with disabilities," said Johns, who is active in several special education organizations in Illinois.

She questions the legality of the state board's proposal, though the board insists that what it wants to do is legal.

Melissa Taylor, president of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education, believes districts must keep paying for special education services — and cannot reduce spending from the prior year — to comply with federal law.

She said her organization has been uncomfortable in the past when state lawmakers tried — unsuccessfully — to pull money out of various state special education accounts. But the group hasn't taken a stance yet on the newest proposal.

It's a difficult situation, Taylor said. "It is that Catch-22. While it scares us in some regard, we also recognize that it does allow districts hurting the most to recapture some funds. To be completely opposed to it is like saying we aren't concerned about the needs of our districts hurting the most."

The Illinois State Board of Education unanimously approved the proposal earlier this month as part of state schools Superintendent Tony Smith's recommendations for state spending on public schools in 2016-17.

Some board members expressed concerns, including how special education programs would fare for some 300,000 students served — about 14 percent of the school population.

The goal of the proposal is to address longstanding concerns about unequal funding for public schools. Some districts spend more than $20,000 per student while others spend less than $7,000, state data show.

Broad efforts to reform the funding system have included using special education money to boost general state aid, but those efforts have stalled.

That said, the state board believes the best way to help make funding more equal is to bolster the $5 billion General State Aid program, which gives districts wide flexibility on how to spend money and is distributed to districts based on factors such as local property wealth, number of students and the concentration of low-income kids.

Special education is treated differently, with dollars set aside to cover certain categories of services, such as helping pay salaries for special education teachers and summer school costs for students with disabilities, among other services.

The $305 million special education pot that the state wants to put into general state aid is now used to supplement local and federal funds for special education.

It's one of the big-ticket items in the state board's spending plan, representing about 20 percent of the $1.5 billion for the major special education categories.

Why the board chose special education dollars — and not other pots of money to be put into general state aid — isn't clear to advocates and educators.

The board pointed out the money in that $305 million special education category is not distributed as equitably as general state aid.

The board recommended increases for everything from arts and foreign language programs to agriculture education for 2016-17 and proposed putting money into legislator-pushed education projects not even recommended by the board last year.

The late Maggie Daley's After School Matters program in Chicago would get $2.4 million, and the Southwest Organizing Project, which does a parent mentoring program, would get $2 million under the board's spending proposals. The board said in a written response to the Tribune that, "ISBE followed the lead of the General Assembly" on those two projects.

The state board also recommended giving $300,000 to a handful of charter schools authorized by the state to make up for losing money if the special education proposal goes through. The allocation is based in part on differences in the way those charter schools are funded compared with public school districts.

There's no similar appropriation to help offset losses for districts.

Barrington Community Unit School District 220 stands to lose $635,000, according to an ISBE analysis.

Superintendent Brian Harris said that's a significant loss for the district, affecting teachers, education programs and school buildings.

Harris said he's frustrated that Illinois isn't appropriately funding public education and the state board's proposal doesn't address the full problem.

"All they're doing here is reshuffling the deck chairs," Harris said. "That is inappropriate. I understand the districts who are winners — they are probably happy. But we're still not solving the big picture."

In Wheaton, District 200 Superintendent Schuler said his district's loss in state aid could mean cuts. "We'd have to reduce our projected spending by that year," he said.

As to special education spending, Schuler said the district takes that responsibility very seriously, "So I don't anticipate that we would be cutting special education expenses because we have an obligation to meet those."

Still, the state would need to monitor districts to make sure they are complying with federal law on special education spending, "and they (ISBE) don't have the resources to truly monitor at that level," Schuler said.

"A lot of their resources have been cut so they don't have the capacity now to monitor everything."

The state board is recommending that language be added to state budget legislation to ensure districts still comply with federal laws on covering special education expenses.

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, has been pushing for school funding reforms in recent years, and has included in his legislation the idea of putting pots of special education funds into the General State Aid program.

Thus far, the legislation has not passed the state House and Senate.

Manar praised the ISBE's proposal to bolster state aid by using the special education money.

"I think the board's actions are a step in the right direction," Manar said. "As difficult as that was, I firmly believe that we need a broad systemic change" to cure Illinois' inequitable school funding system.

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