Special education money at risk in recommended budget

Chicago school
The State Board of Education recommends that the General Assembly shift money designated for special education to districts with high-need.

By Morgan Gilbard

State Board of Education officials discussed their 2017 budget recommendation like it was a Rubik’s cube: What can they shift to make Illinois schools work?

Unanimously approved by the board earlier this month, the budget recommends $2.5 billion in spending— an increase of $262 million from 2016.

In an unprecedented move, the board also recommended that the General Assembly shift $309 million normally targeted for special education into the general fund distributed for all students. Districts would then be allowed to distribute special education funding at their own discretion.

Though the board’s goal is to have districts still meet federal mandates for providing special education, there would be no mechanism in place to insure that result.

Superintendent Tony Smith said the board’s priority was to draft a budget that distributed money more equitably, “so we rethought the budget through that lens.”

The U.S. Department of Education approved the shift of funds.  But board vice chair Steven Gilford and member John Sanders still expressed concern that the recommended budget would decimate special education programs and fail to hold schools accountable.

CPS budget info final
Statistics reported from the State Board of Education’s Jan. 10 proposal. (Morgan Gilbard/Medill).

“I have concerns about simply funneling money into the general state aid. We have many districts in this state that are not succeeding in the way we’d like for them to succeed,” said Gilford. “I think that the overall plan should be more focused on stepping in and intervening where districts are not really meeting standards and succeeding.”

The superintendent insisted that federal review makes the shift risk-free. Although the board approved the proposal, some still expressed skepticism.

“If the State Board keeps doing the same thing that it’s always done, we will never get equity for all of our children,” said Lula Ford, a board member with over 34 years of experience teaching and running Illinois public schools. “I want things to change.”

Ford’s former colleagues at Chicago Public Schools share her thirst for improvement. Patricia Rivera served kids low-income areas as a CPS social worker for 33 years and now runs Chicago Hopes for Kids, an education nonprofit serving homeless students. Like the board, Rivera isn’t sure how the budget shift would impact students— an uncertainty that feels like a risk with a high payoff.

“We need both special ed [money] and an increase in the foundation level,” said Rivera. “I think the state hasn’t lived up to its responsibility. …We really need a huge amount of help, especially in the poorer districts.”

The board projects that 77 percent of students in low-income neighborhoods will benefit if the General Assembly approves the budget proposal without changes— an unlikely outcome considering the Assembly’s track record. This year’s additional $300 million to public K-12 education was supposed to alleviate statewide struggles and was the most generous package in years, but still fell 8 percent short of what the board requested.

Smith will present the budget recommendation to the General Assembly next month. “We’re doing work to serve districts in the context of not having what we should expect in a normal, kind of well-run state,” Smith said to his colleagues at last week’s session. “So I think to not stand for what you believe in because of what might not happen is not a place that I want to be.”

Photo at top: The State Board of Education recommends that the General Assembly shift money designated for special education to districts with high-need. (Morgan Gilbard/MEDILL).