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Do the Right Thing for Kids Needing Special Education

Photo by Tiffany

Published in ChicagoNow, February 14, 2017

As someone who loves her grandchildren with special needs, I am begging you this Valentine’s Day to have a heart. And as a lifelong advocate for civil rights, which includes the rights of people with disabilities, I am asking our State Senators, Representatives, and Governor to think deeply about the consequences of a bill under consideration to cut reimbursement for the special education staff.

According to State Senator Andy Manar, education reform includes reducing the “drastic over-identification” of students for special education. Right now, however, most kids in special education are barely receiving what they need under the current level of funding. Think about the one out of 68 kids who are on the autistic spectrum. The children with physical or severe learning disabilities. What about children who are medically compromised? Chances are, you know one of them.

State Representatives Will Davis, Robert Pritchard, and Linda Chapa LaVia, the bill you are sponsoring, HB 2808, would eliminate Special Education Personnel Reimbursement and instead fund special education based on General Education students. What this means is that each district would receive funds based on the fixed number of general education students it serves. The number of kids in the district who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) would not matter. I guess you think every district has the same proportion of children who are legally entitled to special education services. And I guess you have no personal experience with kids who need special education. If you did, you would recognize the unfairness of your bill.

I’m going to assume none of the people behind this proposal want to hurt children like my grandkids. They are just looking for ways to save money in our cash-strapped, dysfunctional state. But let’s take a look at Evanston/Skokie District 65, where I pay very high property taxes and my grandchildren go to school. Right now, we have 1,070 students with special needs being served by 173 special education providers. The State pays $9,000 toward the salary of each special educator, which isn’t all that much compared with what the District has to pay.

Under the proposed new formula in HB 2808, one teaching position (special educator, speech/language person, occupational therapist, physical therapist, or social worker) would be funded for every 141 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten through grade 12 children in a district. The funding would not be tied in any way to the actual special educators employed. The result in my district would be a huge loss of financial support and a reduction in special education staff. Worst of all, this provision of the bill will encourage districts like mine, whose Special Education population probably exceeds the formula, to deny services to children in order to meet the cap imposed by the state.

Rhonda Cohen, Inclusion Director of Cherry Preschool, explained it this way:

“The hypothesis that every district has the exact same percentage of children with special needs and that every district will have children requiring the exact same level of specialized support just boggles my mind. Not to mention that some districts probably have a higher percentage of kids with special needs just because families choose to move there specifically because that district has a reputation of actually doing a decent job of meeting those needs.”

The funding of special education staff should be separate from any bill creating a school funding formula. From my experience as director of Cherry Preschool, an early childhood program that welcomes and includes children with special needs, the key to success for these children is having enough trained staff dedicated to ensuring their participation. From my experience as the grandparent of children with special needs, as they progress through formal schooling, many children need even more specialized services to meet the academic demands of school. Any plan that would result in a reduction of trained staff would spell disaster for these children’s ability to learn and achieve their goals.

To all of our Illinois legislators and our governor: What if a child you loved needed special education services to reach his or her potential? This year, Valentine’s Day is also The Day of Revolutionary Love/Day of Rising to fight for social justice in our country. So, here’s my Valentine message to all who have the power to right this wrong: Please do it. Remove Special Education from HB 2808. These children are already overcoming many challenges in their lives. Think about them and all of your constituents who love them. And remember, we have learned one thing since Trump became President. We will rise up.


by Laurie Levy
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