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Chicago Schools Chief: Cost A Driver In Special Ed Overhaul

At a state hearing Friday on Chicago Public Schools’ troubled special education program, new Schools CEO Janice Jackson said cost was one driver of its controversial overhaul. Jackson also said she has fired all consultants, including those who helped orchestrate the special education changes.

“We were a district in crisis,” Jackson told state lawmakers. “I would be telling a lie if I said that we were not looking for ways to save money.”

Jackson’s comments came during a six-hour hearing before a state education committee. In addition to grilling Jackson and other CPS officials, lawmakers blasted state education leaders, saying they should have recognized serious problems with Chicago’s special education program and demanded that those problems be fixed.

“You have the ability to look at these things, and then all of the sudden, it sprouts fully formed like from the head of Zeus,” state Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, said to State Board of Education leaders at the hearing. “How did you miss that?

Rep. Representative Robert Pritchard, R-Sycamore, told state officials they had failed the children of Chicago.

The hearing was prompted by a WBEZ investigation found that sweeping changes to the city’s special education program beginning in 2016 resulted in cutbacks in services for special needs students but savings for the school district. WBEZ also found that outside consultants without special education expertise were instrumental in crafting the overhaul.

Jackson took over as interim chief this month after former CEO Forrest Claypool was forced to resign. She is expected to be made permanent CEO next week.

Jackson, who served as chief education officer as the special education changes were being made, said she told Claypool some of the reforms were wrong but said she was not heeded. Before leaving CPS, Claypool strongly defended his reforms, saying they were designed to give every child with special needs the chance to succeed. CPS was concerned about growing special education costs, but Claypool insisted the reforms were not designed to save money.

But Jackson also told lawmakers on Friday that a cost-benefit analysis was done to see how changes would impact CPS’ budget. She did note, though, that she believed the district was meeting state and federal requirements.

Lawmakers did not let Jackson off the hook.

Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Streamwood, who called the hearing, said as it concluded that the Chicago Board of Education should hold off on approving Jackson as permanent CEO until the State Board of Education completes its own investigation into the special education changes. Jackson is expected to be approved as CEO on Jan. 24.

The state board last month launched that investigation, called a public inquiry. It will hold its own hearings and will issue a final report by April that could include recommended fixes.

State education officials explained their inaction until now by saying they have no way to identify systemic problems in school districts like the ones at issue with special education.

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

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