Who Will Pay To Educate Profoundly Disabled Children?

Sep 30, 2019

Pamela Markle, CEO of Children's Habilitation Center, stands in the hallway in front of one row of custom wheelchairs parked outside residents doors.
Credit Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

About a dozen children with complex medical needs have been kicked out of school over a funding dispute. The children reside at Children's Habilitation Center — a long-term care facility for children with complex medical needs, located in Harvey, Illinois.

On Friday, CHC filed a lawsuit against the West Harvey-Dixmoor Public School District 147, the Illinois State Board of Education, and several other school districts.

Many children at CHC also have profound developmental disabilities. Nevertheless, under federal law, they’re entitled to a “free and appropriate public education,” or FAPE. At CHC, that has meant five hours of daily instruction with licensed special education teachers and paraprofessionals.

At issue is who pays for this education. Under state law, each student’s home district is responsible for their tuition, and Harvey District 147 has, for years, borne that cost. But in February, the district notified CHC that it had “dis-enrolled” eight students who had previously been enrolled at Harvey, and refused to enroll two younger CHC residents who had just reached school age.

Christopher Grohman, the attorney who filed the complaint on behalf of CHC, says payment is the central conflict.

"There's no dispute among any of the parties that these kids deserve to be educated or are legally required to receive an education. Nor is there a dispute that they have to be enrolled somewhere,” he says. “This is all about money, from the districts’ point of view. Nobody wants to enroll them, because if you enroll them, then you accept the burden of paying for their education."

​A spokesperson for the state board said she could not comment. Multiple messages left with the West Harvey district superintendent's office have gone unanswered. However, a look at the district’s financial profile shows it’s struggling, far below adequate resources, even two years after the state revamped its school funding formula to channel more dollars to the districts that need it the most.

Grohman filed the complaint to compel an official decision on who should pay because so far, ISBE has not made a determination.

"Basically, there's really only two options,” Grohman says. “District 147 — because we can't find the parents and get the parents to enroll them — or the district where the parents last lived." 

UPDATE: The following statement was received from the Illinois State Board of Education at 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3:

ISBE’s most critical priority is to ensure that children are being educated and cared for. We have ensured that the children at CHC have been and are receiving education and services with no interruption. We are urgently attending to the matter of responsibility for the payment of services and are working toward a swift resolution.