CPS has agreed to restore 60 special education positions at 30 district-run schools after parents and local staff convinced administrators that they wouldn’t be able to meet student needs with the proposed staffing levels.

The 60 positions — 50 special education aides and 10 teachers — make up about 10 percent of the total school-based special education positions that were slated to be cut from levels in place at the end of last school year.

About a quarter of the restored positions — 15 aides and one teacher — are going to Vaughn Occupational High School, a specialty school in Portage Park that serves only students with special needs.

Rachel, a special education student, speaks at a rally focused on special education cuts on Aug. 26, 2015.
Rachel, a special education student, speaks at a rally focused on special education cuts on Aug. 26, 2015.

Vaughn parents were vocal critics of their school’s budget at recent hearings and the Local School Council (LSC) chair said it took an extensive review of every student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) to convince the district to bring back just over half the staff Vaughn was going to lose.

About half the schools with restored positions had above-average enrollments of students with special needs. They included three other specialty schools: Rudolph Elementary, Stock Elementary and Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center. Nine of the 30 schools enrolled more white students than the district’s average.

Sixty other district-run schools contested their special education staffing levels, but received no adjustments.

“CPS has been listening to the community and working for weeks with principals, LSCs and parents to review school budgets and to make sure that the district meets the needs of every child with an individualized educational program,” CPS spokesperson Emily Bittner said in a statement.

Officials say the adjustments were based on “updated student data,” such as IEP needs, enrollment increases or cluster program changes. The district will continue to review special education enrollment and staffing throughout the year, officials said, and make adjustments accordingly.

However, others involved with special education are not convinced. Federico Waitoller, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, worries that parents without strong advocacy skills may feel pressured to approve reduced services for their children. Waitoller expressed the concern at a protest before the School Board meeting last Wednesday.

Per-pupil budgeting pilot adding schools

Meanwhile, the district also is expanding a pilot program in student-based budgeting for special education to 102 schools, up from 22 last year. Under the new “All Means All” program, schools receive funding based on the number of special needs students they enroll. Previously, they received funding to cover the cost of the special education staff assigned to the school.

The district says that per-pupil funding, which went into effect for general education students in the 2013-14 school year, makes it possible to “update a school’s resources more quickly and transparently in response to changing diverse learner enrollment and/or IEP needs.”

But critics of the program told WBEZ they fear All Means All will lead cash-strapped schools to make inappropriate placements for special education students — the program provides schools with a financial bonus if they “successfully transition students out of special education or move more kids into mainstream classrooms,” WBEZ reports.

In all, the district reduced spending on special education for next school year by $42.3 million, which is about a fifth of the cuts officials announced in July as part of an attempt to close a $1.1 billion budget gap. The special education cuts, officials said, were based on an 18-month review of the district’s program.

CPS releases general information about cuts

The review showed special education staffers had outpaced the number of students with special needs in district-run schools, CPS officials said, and cuts were needed to “right-size” staffing levels.

But disability-rights advocates, like education policy analyst Rodney Estvan of Access Living, say the fact the district has already restored 60 positions indicates the audit wasn’t correct.

In response to a Catalyst open records request, CPS made public some documents on Wednesday that are related to the special education staff review, but they did not include how staffing decisions were made on a school-by-school basis.

The released documents are a five-page overview of special education enrollment and staffing trends since 2010, a 2013 memo about special education class size guidelines and a page from state administrative code about those class sizes.

In an analysis of the CPS budget released last week, Estvan said it appeared the 18-month review relied mostly on an examination of where CPS schools were under or over the state’s maximum ratio for special education staff to students.

But administrative code, he notes, also permits the district to take into consideration other factors when determining necessary staffing. They include student age, the nature and severity of disabilities and educational needs, and the degree of interventions needed.

In his analysis, Estvan called into question whether CPS had “done the exhaustive work necessary” to make sure the level of staffing proposed would meet students’ needs. Such an analysis would require more than adding up staff work hours and the amount of time student IEPs entitle them to services, he noted.

“That effort also requires, among other things: looking at the times academic subjects are taught; the location of classrooms; the number of different grade levels a special education teacher might have assigned students in; and the various learning styles,” he wrote. “The end result should be a complex matrix of services, locations, and students on a school by school basis.”

The records shared with reporters about the 18-month review don’t contain such information.

Special education trends in CPS

The records do support the district’s claim that there’s been a decline in the number of students with special needs in district-run schools since 2010, as staffing at those schools has increased.

But overall, the number of students with special needs across the district is up over the past four years — by about 5 percent — due to an increase of students with special needs at privately managed charter, contract and alternative schools. CPS data show the enrollment of students with special needs at schools not run by the district has grown by 80 percent since the start of the 2010-11 school year — to 8,690 students.

Enrollment and staffing in district-run schools, according to CPS records:

School year Student enrollment (20th day) Teachers allocated Aides allocated Additional teachers approved Additional aides approved
2010-11 44,464 3,347 2,885 175.4 398
2011-12 44,243 3,401 3,056 118 261.5
2012-13 43,154 3,368 3,044 174.5 263
2013-14 43,371 3,336 3,009 318.9 430
2014-15 42,958 3,724 3,331 134 321.5

Another trend is that each year the district approves requests for hundreds of additional special education aides and teachers after principals have received their proposed budgets — and on average the district ends up with about 6 percent more students with special needs across all schools, including charters, by the end of the school year.

A driver of the historic staffing “roller coaster,” Estvan says, is that principals are unsure about how they’ll be funded in the future, so there is a “reluctance to voluntarily give up extra special education positions any school may have.”

“As positions build up on a system wide scale CPS tries to purge itself using formulas that are not tied to the reality of students with disabilities sitting in front of teachers,” Estvan writes.

Estvan says it’s harder to recruit high-quality staff if the district understaffs at the start of the school year and then fills in gaps as the school year progresses.

At last week’s School Board meeting, member Mahalia Hines called on Markay Winston, who oversees special education in her role as chief of the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services, to make a presentation to the School Board in September to set the record straight on the special education cuts, saying she believed the public’s perception was “erroneous.”

Hines, a former CPS principal, said she was “well aware of those positions that we had as principals that, honestly, were not used correctly… and now principals may not want to give them up.”

Catalyst intern Meg Anderson contributed to this report.

Kalyn is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at kbelsha@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter @kalynbelsha.

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