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Chicago Public Schools Struggle With High Special Education Teacher Vacancies

CPS has added teaching positions but can’t fill them, a state appointed monitor plans to tell state education officials Tuesday.

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A state appointed monitor plans to tell state education officials Tuesday that CPS has added teaching positions but can’t fill them.

Bill Healy

Chicago Public Schools currently has 310 vacant special education teacher positions, leaving principals scrambling to make sure students with disabilities have their educational needs met.

That’s according to the state monitor for the school system’s troubled special education department. The monitor was put in place last year after a state investigation found that a CPS special education overhaul led to systemic and illegal cuts in services.

Information about staffing vacancies will be part of monitor Laura Boedeker’s report to the Illinois State Board of Education, which meets on Tuesday.

Despite the vacancies, Boedeker points out that the school system currently has more special education teachers than it has had in the past five years. She said district officials have been opening new positions, but can’t find teachers to fill them.

Special education teacher positions “are so hard to fill these days, everywhere nationwide … not just CPS,” said Boedeker, an attorney who used to work in CPS’s special education department. Half of all teacher vacancies in Chicago Public Schools are special education positions, she said, even though they make up less than 20 percent of all district teachers.

Boedeker said 4.8 percent of special education teacher positions were vacant at the end of last school year. Since then, the school district budgeted many more teachers but was unsuccessful in filling so many of those positions. As a result, 7 percent are currently empty.

Stacey Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said the nationwide shortage of special education teachers is not the only reason why CPS has such a high number of vacancies. For many years, school district officials have taken steps to cut back on special education funding. Now, as they try to ramp back up, they can’t find teachers to fill positions, she said.

“This is where you see the impact of austerity budgets,” she said.

Boedeker said she and school district officials are looking at how these vacancies are being handled. They want to know which principals are aggressively trying to fill them and how well they handle getting substitutes, especially when they have long-term vacancies and several teachers out sick.

In her report, Boedeker notes the school district is taking several steps to try to get more special education teachers, including encouraging current CPS teachers to get special education endorsements and creating a special education teacher residency program.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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