Advocates: Chicago Public Schools Offering Special Ed Families A Hollow Choice | WBEZ
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Advocates: Chicago Public Schools Offering Special Ed Families A Hollow Choice

Updated at 5:10 pm

Special education advocates are lauding Chicago Public Schools for giving severely disabled students some high school choice for next fall, but they say the school district included an illegal caveat that creates a disadvantage for low-income families.

In the past, students with severe disabilities were placed into a program by district officials, with parents having little say. But two weeks ago, a letter went out to parents asking them to rank their top three choices. It also included a map showing which schools have programs for severely disabled students.

This was good news for parents. That letter, however, also told parents that if their preferred choice is more than six miles away, they may be “required” to waive transportation in writing and agree to get their child to school themselves.

Amy Zimmerman, a program director at the Legal Council for Health Justice, said adding this provision is wrong.

“It is not a meaningful choice at all if they are severely limiting their transportation options,” she said.

If the students didn’t have a right to transportation, Zimmerman notes, the school district wouldn’t need to ask them to waive it. School district policy promises students with disabilities transportation to a neighborhood school or a school of choice if the student’s disability meets one of several criteria. The criteria include things like using a wheelchair or an intellectual disability that would make it unsafe for them to travel on their own. This covers nearly all children with severe disabilities.

School district officials note that federal law only requires students with disabilities to be placed in schools that best meet their needs closest to their homes. But because it does allow for parental input, CPS says it's allowing for choice.

They emphasize, though, that there are “quality” programs for students with severe disabilities throughout the city.

According to those officials, it has long been the practice to require parents who want their children placed in a specific school to sign such a waiver.

They said state administrative code allows the school district to require this waiver. The Illinois State Board of Education administrative code says “every effort should be made to limit the child’s total travel time to not more than one hour each way.”

Mary Hughes, special education parent liaison for the advocacy group Raise Your Hand, said that explanation doesn’t hold up. She said many students with disabilities already travel for more than an hour on a school bus.

She also notes the administrative code does not prohibit the school district from providing transportation for students who have to ride a bus for a long time.

“With one hand they are giving, with the other hand they are taking away,” Hughes said. “Because they are saying, ‘you can go to this wonderful school, like the (agriculture) school that has animal science like nowhere else in the city, but if you live six miles away, you have to agree to transport yourself.’”

Many of the city’s elite test-in selective enrollment schools, like Payton, Northside and Whitney Young, have programs that serve severely disabled students. She said parents might want their children in these schools because they feel they are safer than a neighborhood school or to take advantage of better-resourced programs.

She said some schools have specialties, such as art or cooking, that could engage and excite students with disabilities.

It is unfair that only parents who live close to these schools or who have the resources to drive their children to school will be able to choose them, Hughes said.

Parents were supposed to turn in their rankings on Friday, but did not have to sign the waiver until the placement is made. Hughes said she is telling parents not to sign the waiver.

Raise Your Hand recently released a report on the difficulties students in special education have in participating in the school district’s centralized high school application process. That report found many high schools have test score cutoffs that students with disabilities can’t meet and therefore their choices are limited.

When the report was released, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said she planned to improve the process for students with disabilities.

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

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