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Special Education Focus Of Budget Hearings

How to pay for special education dominated Monday’s public hearings on Chicago Public Schools’ proposed budget.

The district has seen an increase in the number of students with special learning needs, with more than 52,000 students registered this school year compared to 49,186 enrolled in 2010. 

The debate over special education funding has become the latest battle between CPS and some community members. 

The Memo

During the summer, CPS’ new special education chief sent out a memo to principals that detailed ongoing problems with special education. Among the issues outlined were rising costs from too many students being identified as needing special services. The memo said CPS is now spending about $900 million on special education, a $131 million increase since 2010.

The memo also said many students were placed into special education who could have had their needs met through programs in regular education. Special education advocates took issue with many of the contentions in that memo, especially the comparisons between Chicago and other urban districts. They point out that, compared to most other districts, Chicago serves more children living in poverty and experiencing trauma -- two factors that have been shown to increase the likelihood that students need special education services. 

Changes to Funding 

When principals got their school budgets in the summer, they found a major change: Instead of a budget amount for special education and a separate one for general education, principals received one combined chunk of money. In the past, special education received its own separate budget. 

But now, principals are being told to use the one pot of money to pay for both special education and general education. 

Why is that a Problem? 

Some principals worry CPS is passing off a funding quagmire to them as the district grapples with larger financial problems. The district is essentially telling principals to first fund special education at their schools, because those services are mandated under federal law, and then turn to general education classrooms. 

If a parent believes their child is not receiving the mandated services, that could be the basis of a lawsuit. 

Some parents worry principals might be forced to take money from general education to make sure special education is fully funded. 

What Do Critics Want? 

Some parents want CPS to go back and separate special education funding from general school budgets. 

Jennie Biggs, who serves on the Local School Council at Sheridan Elementary on the South Side, presented a letter signed by 375 LSC members at 140 different schools. The letter demands that CPS restore special education funding. 

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her @SSKedreporter.

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