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At CPS, More Special Education Dollars Go To White, Wealthier Students

Tara Williams is fighting hard for her 12-year-old son, who has serious learning and behavior disabilities. She fears what lies ahead if he doesn’t get the help he needs from his public school on Chicago’s West Side.

“I really worry that he will just give up,” Williams said.

A feisty and devoted single mom, Williams already has moved from one poor African-American neighborhood on the South Side to what she considers a safer neighborhood on the West Side.

She often wonders if her son would get more help if he lived in a better-off, mostly white neighborhood with more clout.

Williams’ hunch might be right.

Major differences in special education spending exist across Chicago schools, according to a WBEZ analysis of spending in the 2015-16 school year. Schools with wealthier student populations spent the most per student while schools where nearly all students are low-income spent the least, the analysis shows.

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There are also differences by race. Schools with significant white populations spent about $3,000 more per student on average than those with mostly Latino students, and $600 more than those with mostly black students.

A push for ‘equity’

Chicago Public Schools officials acknowledged that students with similar disabilities do not always receive the same level of help, though they did not tie the disparities to race or class.

Those disparities are problematic and long-standing, they said, and are one major reason they initiated a major overhaul last year to the way in which special education services are doled out.

CPS is trying to standardize how students are identified as having special needs and also standardize the type of services they should get, said Denise Little, senior advisor to CPS CEO Forrest Claypool.

“To me, this is about equity,” she said.

But advocates fear these changes are making it worse for parents like Williams. At the same time CPS overhauled its special needs program last year, it also scaled back its special education budget for all schools. Instead of boosting funding for under-resourced schools, all schools got less.

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And the overhaul put an even greater burden than before on parents. It’s incumbent on them to know what services to request and to keep pushing for supports for their children, such as specialists, aides, and bus service, special education advocates said.

This squeaky wheel approach to service delivery was underscored last year when CPS cut special education budgets. The school district told principals they could ask for some money back if they could prove they needed it.

But the school district approved few appeals — and about a third of the additional money went to schools where more than 25 percent of the students were white. Only 11 percent of all schools have significant white student populations.

The social capital of parents — their socio-economic status, power, and involvement — has long factored into what services students get in special education. But in the past, when school staff agreed with parents on what a child needed, like occupational therapy or time with a social worker, that was typically enough to get services.

Now, under the rules implemented last year — laid out in a thick manual —  that agreement is only the first step. After that comes reams of documentation and outside approvals before special education services can begin.

Fighting a ‘non-winning war’

Parent Christine Palmieri said she saw first-hand last year how hard it was to get special education support in CPS, even if you’re white, middle-class, and live in a well-heeled neighborhood.

Staff at her son’s elementary school in Lakeview on the North Side agreed he needed an aide. He is autistic and often wanders. But the school told her they couldn’t pay for it.

So she went to plead her case before the Chicago Board of Education, demanding something be done. Eventually, the school figured out how to pay for the aide.

“I cannot understand how a parent in a different situation can go and fight against CPS admin [and] fight a non-winning war,” Palmieri said.

Gerardo Suarez, who volunteers with a community group called Communities United and attended CPS schools, said many Latino parents already find it hard navigating the system because of language and cultural issues. Suarez, 26, has a hearing impairment, but didn’t start getting special education help until eighth grade.

“My mother didn’t know what was special education,” he said. His mother is from Mexico, doesn’t speak much English and isn’t familiar with the way the education system works here, he said.

In the years since Williams’ son was diagnosed with his disabilities, she has tried to learn as much about special education as she possibly could. At first, though, she resisted. She remembers initially being scared of a label for her son, she said. She was afraid teachers would not expect anything from him.

But she saw him struggling. In kindergarten, the principal threatened to expel him because he acted out so much, she said.

Tara Williams sorts through documents detailing why her son needs special education services ahead of a meeting about his individualized education plan this fall. (Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)

“I had to put myself in his shoes,” Williams said.

Williams dove in. She volunteered at his school, became an advocate for him and joined Community Organizing and Family Issues, a citywide organization where she now trains other parents.   

“You have to know your rights as a parent,” she said. “You have to know your responsibility. ... How are you going to work with the school and the school going to work with you?”

But last year was exceedingly difficult for her, even with all her training. In the last six months, she’s met three times with staff at her son’s school. She still doesn’t think he is getting what he needs.

The principal of his school, Laura Ward Elementary, declined to comment, citing confidentiality.

Tara Williams heads into Laura Ward Elementary with a caseworker in September, the third meetings she's had with the school in the last sixth months about services for her special needs son. (Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)

Williams said the school won’t give him an individual aide, even though psychiatrists from La Rabida Children’s Hospital have diagnosed him with emotional and impulse issues. She said he is in trouble so much that he misses out on a lot of learning time.

“The aide could keep other kids from messing with him and make sure he doesn’t get mad,” she said. But she said the school staff told her they are understaffed and can’t afford one.

The school was able to give him a computer that reads texts out loud to help him get his work done. Also, they said they would assign someone on staff to keep an eye on him.

If she remains unhappy with her son’s services, she said school staff told her she could request another meeting. But not until January.

She’s not giving up, of course. But she has serious doubts her son will ever get what he needs in her neighborhood and others like it.

Sarah Karp reports on education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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