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Chicago Schools Chief Pledges Major Changes To Special Education

The new head of the Chicago Public Schools told Chicago aldermen on Friday that she plans to scale back controversial changes to the school district’s program for children with special needs.

Janice Jackson’s pledge came during a City Council hearing about an overhaul to the program implemented by her predecessor Forrest Claypool, who resigned last month.

The hearing was scheduled in response to a WBEZ investigation that found that the overhaul led to cutbacks in services for children but savings for the school district.

It also revealed that the overhaul, which went into effect in the 2016-17 school year, was orchestrated by outside auditors with no expertise in special education.

WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp spearheaded the investigation. She sat down with WBEZ senior editor Kate Grossman to talk through what happened Friday afternoon.

On what CPS pledged to change

Sarah Karp: It’s a big deal that she came before the City Council. She’s the first CEO to testify in at least seven years. Aldermen were happy she was there but they didn’t let her off the hook. Before taking over as CEO, Jackson was the district’s chief education officer.

Jackson essentially pledged an overhaul of the special education overhaul. She promised not to let non-educators create policy again or even have them analyze what is going on. She also pledged not to let budget concerns trump getting students what they need. That was a driver for the original overhaul. She also wants to reinstate a parent advisory committee and hire advocates to help parents get students what they need.

In addition, she acknowledged disparities in special education funding between schools. WBEZ found majority Latino schools spent significantly less on special education per student than majority white or Black schools. She said this was one reason CPS on Friday announced it was adding 65 more special education positions, with most for students who are bilingual and have special needs.

It’s important to note Chicago’s special education program had lots of problems before the overhaul. The issue is that many parent and educators felt the overhaul made it worse, not better.

On parent testimony

Karp: This is always the most emotional part. Many parents got up and said they didn’t feel safe sending their children to school because they didn’t have the proper staffing. They said they still felt, even though there have been changes made this year, that their children were not getting the support they needed. One mother said, after detailing all the problems that she’s had getting help for her children, that she was the poster child for all the problems that parents have had trying to get their kids help in CPS.

On how hard it will be to make the changes CPS is promising

Karp: CPS is on better financial footing than in the past, but it is still a far cry from wealthier school districts so we’re not going to have an A-1 special education program anytime soon. One problem the district has now is that a lot of teachers and specialists like social workers, nurses and psychologists have left because of budget cuts and because they felt it was too cumbersome to get their kids help. Getting those people back into the school district will be hard to do over the next few years.

Jackson says she is committed to making some systemic changes that might make CPS more attractive to special education staff, but said it will be a process. Jackson said the problems with the special education program were not created overnight and will not be fixed overnight. She said she hoped that her presence at the hearing is seen as an act of good faith.

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

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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