Over the past year, Chicago Public Schools administration has cut funding for special education programs, which serve over fifty-two thousand students throughout Chicago.
An investigation by WBEZ found that last school year CPS budgeted $29 million less than prior years, and “officials relied on a set of guidelines . . . that resulted in limiting services for special education students.”
This meant some students were deprived of busing to schools, one-on-one aides, and summer programs. The time students spent with specialists decreased by 12 percent on average. Additionally, changes in the funding model caused a decrease of 350 special education teachers and seventy-six aides, compared to last year.
“It’s a fight,” Sarah Karp, lead reporter of the WBEZ investigation, told the Gate. “This is over resources. [Because] parents have been willing to tell their stories, people can understand it now. Parents are fighting for their kids.” Currently, special education advocates are demanding $10 million in compensation for the affected students and families.
The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) recently conducted its own investigation. The Board released a forty-two-page document that details the “systematic problems” which delayed and denied services to students.
The ISBE found major problems with the district’s electronic Individualized Education Program (IEP) system—a legally required document that is developed for each student in special education and is intended to help students reach specific educational objectives. The electronic system for CPS prevented educators from documenting certain decisions and limited their ability to place students in summer programs. Additionally, students would often need the signature of a principal or district official to override the auto-populated sections of the IEP form, making accurate data entry more burdensome than necessary.
CPS contends the recent special education overhaul was not only to address the growing costs of special education with an ever-shrinking budget, but also to address consistently low test scores among students with disabilities.
For WBEZ reporter Karp, this is only half the story. “It’s not just that CPS was underfunding the system, but the last couple of years the budget has come out late,” explained Karp. Open teaching and aide positions were subsequently posted last minute, leading to a rush to find quality teachers. “If you don’t post a position, who really are you going to get? Then you wind up having a bunch of unfilled positions which eventually become savings for CPS again,” Karp said.
Karp launched the WBEZ investigation into CPS based on the numerous complaints she heard from parents and advocates about student services being cut. One of the parents in her investigation spoke about how when her child was in preschool, she agreed to anything because she thought the school knew best, but nothing was ever handed to her to help with the system.
“CPS kept saying we’re not doing anything. Everyone is being perfectly served,” said Karp. “I had this nagging thought that someone should be able to figure out whether these services were really being cut.”
CPS recently announced it will spend $29 million to restore the original funding model as well as $2.6 million to provide new special education teaching positions across the city. CPS also stated if the ISBE recommends the district provide additional staff or services, those jobs should be funded by the state or federal government.
For Karp, this is no surprise: “CPS tries its very best to not spend property tax money on special needs kids,” she told the Gate. “They’re spending a ton of money on pensions and we aren’t collecting enough money to fund the school district the way we’d like it to be funded. CPS doesn’t dip into their own money, so they want to spend state and federal money.”
CPS CEO Janice Jackson acknowledges there are disparities in the system. In a released public statement, she said, “We also believe that we have more work to do to make sure that we’re giving all our students the services they need, and look forward to refining special education services for all our students.”
However, Karp contends it’s unclear whether these changes have actually been implemented. “They say they’re making changes all the time. We have to wait and see.” Matthew Cohen, an attorney who represents over fourteen advocacy and parent groups, also believes CPS hasn’t taken sufficient steps to address the problem. “ISBE found the computer program was a serious problem, but what’s the fix? We’ve heard no discussion about fixing it. CPS says problems aren’t happening anymore, but we get reports from parents saying they are,” he told Chicago Tonight.
While reporting on special education in CPS, Karp has placed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests to look at the budget, all the while being told the budget information can’t be compared across years. She still hasn’t received certain documents.
“What kind of transparency do we have when there’s no way to get a handle on what CPS spends on something one year and the next year? It’s hard to tell with CPS how much is planned or [is] just the craziness of the system.”
On Thursday, Chicago principals association president Troy LaRaviere accused Chicago Public Schools of altering a public record to cover up the denial of special education services at a South Side elementary school.
In the original document, the district stated it was “concerned” the school had “an unusually high percentage” of special education students needing services from aides. The document CPS released to the principals association did not contain such references.
“CPS did not want this to see the light of day and deleted it. This is a profound violation of both the law and the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act,” LaRaviere said. LaRaviere also requested the city’s Inspector General, CPS Inspector, and Illinois Attorney General further investigate the records violation and denial of special education services.
CPS recently acknowledged in a filing to the state panel that while there have been situations when the process of providing services “may not have run as smoothly as anticipated,” they contend such instances do violate the law.
In Karp’s opinion, the answer should be easy. “How much are you spending on this? We should be able to answer this question,” she believes. The recent ISBE investigation found that the public also struggles to access and understand the arcane special education procedural manual, which often only creates greater confusion among the community.
“This is a basic question,” Karp said. “It’s basic, basic, basic.” Yet, parents, educators, and even reporters struggle to get answers regarding special education programs in CPS.
“Sometimes,” Karp said, “I’m not sure that wasn’t by design.”
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