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Chicago Takes Aim At Expensive Special Education Program

The new head of special education in Chicago Public Schools plans to tackle the lingering achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without.

But these plans are coupled with misleading statements, hidden budget cuts and confusing changes in the way the district doles out money for special education.

This is leaving parents and advocates worried that changes being proposed are more to save money than to make the program better.

“It is basically a cost cutting strategy that is being disguised as narrowing the achievement gap and giving more access to (regular classes),” said mom and advocate Terri Roback. “It is complete poppycock.”

But new special education head Patrick Baccellieri says the changes he plans to make are more to correct problems he sees in the system than they are to save money.

“This is not about spending more or less,” he said. “This is about utilizing the resources that we have to be more effective and provide consistent support for all kids.”

Last year vs. this year

District officials deny they are cutting special education. They say they are providing schools the same amount of money they spent last year.

But a WBEZ analysis shows that “providing the same amount spent” in fact results in a budget reduction.

Children get placed into special education after being diagnosed with a disability. Special education students range from having physical disabilities to having specific learning or emotional issues. In Chicago, more than half of the children in special education have a diagnosed learning disability.

Federal and state law require each student with a disability to have an individual education plan that lays out supports that schools must provide and goals that students should be reaching.

Last year, just weeks after CPS CEO Forrest Claypool was put in charge of the school district, he announced that he was cutting special education by $42.3 million. According to district officials, an 18-month review found that the district was over-staffed in special education.

But, after an uproar, district officials announced that the funding formula used to make those cuts was flawed and, by November, they had restored most of those positions.

By March, schools had about $557 million worth of teacher and aide positions, according to the employee roster posted by the district.

That information includes teacher and aide positions for severely disabled students who are in what are called cluster programs. CPS says it spent $112 million on cluster programs last year.

This year, CPS says $414 million is budgeted for the 2016-2017 school year for teacher and aide positions in district-run schools, not including cluster programs..

District officials say that these aren’t cuts because some 300 positions or about $30 million were vacant in March and the fact that they were unfilled shows that they were unnecessary.

But closing vacant positions is actually a cut.

What’s more, principals argue that these positions were needed. But a severe shortage of special education teachers made them nearly impossible to fill mid-year, which is what they were stuck trying to do after last year’s attempt to slash the special education budget.

Principals were floored that the district would again give them less this year.

Another wrinkle

Instead of using a complicated formula that allocated teacher and aide positions based on each special education student’s needs, principals this year were given a pot of money, lumped in with money for instruction of general education students.

Principals were then told to prioritize special education students.

“It is [in] the best interest of students that their needs as the most vulnerable children be taken into account first, not last,” Claypool said.

While that might be true, many principals say they weren’t given enough money to have all the special education teachers and aides they needed, while maintaining all general education teachers and other things in the schools.

CPS budgeted about 700 fewer teachers this year. Some of the reduction is due to student enrollment dropping in the district, but it is also due to principals being forced to fund special education positions out of money they would otherwise use for general education teachers and resources.

Tiffany Norwood’s son goes to Agassiz Elementary. She says that one reason she chose the school is that the principal is committed to serving children with disabilities and her son has attention deficit disorder and a multi-sensory language disorder.

Agassiz is projected to get about 10 more students next year. And so, given that CPS’ budget is mostly based on funding on a per pupil basis, the school should be getting more money.

That’s not the case. Norwood says Agassiz principal exhausted all her special education money and did not have enough to keep the nine special education teachers she had last year.

“She looked toward the gen ed positions so we are going to lose one para pro and one teacher,” Norwood says. “What is going on is unfortunate, but she did not want to cut from special ed.”

Norwood and Roback have spent much of the summer meeting with other moms of special education students to talk about how to protect their children and not be seen as the enemy of other families.

Roback says that many principals are using discretionary money--money often used to pay for supplies, technology, security or specialists--to maintain the same number of special education staff.

“It is causing a lot of derision between parents of special ed children and parents of children in the generalized population,” Roback said. “It leaves general education parents saying, why are you [spending] half of your discretionary fund on 13 percent of the population.”

Rod Estvan, education organizer for Access Living, a disabilities rights group, says that he understands the predicament that the district is in.

“It is broke and it is going to be broke for a while,” said Estvan. He acknowledges that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Claypool are not to blame for many of the district’s problems, which stem from decades of avoidance and an inequitable state funding formula.

But Estvan says the way the district is approaching this year’s budget--not acknowledging the cuts and putting it on the principals to make them---is not good.

“To say, it is not our decision at the top is disingenuous,” he said. “The buck has to stop somewhere.”

Making improvements

Just as principals were trying to make sense of the funding changes to special education, a district-commissioned “white paper” was distributed to principals. It criticized the current way the district approaches special education and laid out a case for change.

Baccellieri says he starting thinking about the problems in the district’s special education last year. At the time, he was working in central office overseeing middle managers called network chiefs.

In this role, he says, he sat in the meetings where principals argued against those $42 million in cuts to special education that Claypool made last summer.  

“I noticed great discrepancies or differences in how we met IEPs (student individual education plans) across the district and so some deeper analysis took place,” he said.

In October, CPS’ head of special education, Markay Winston, resigned and then her deputy, who was serving as interim, also left. Baccellieri was appointed  head the complicated department in March.

Though he isn’t a specialist in special education, he says that as a principal and district administrator he worked with and improved special education programs. Baccellieri calls himself a “change agent.”  

The white paper, which was worked on by outside consultants, says that while the test scores of CPS students overall have improved, those of special education students lag behind.

It also says that black and Latino males, as well as English Language Learners, are over identified as having disabilities.

And it says that the current way the system works is too reactive, often responding when a parent threatens legal action. The result is students with the exact same disabilities get different levels of support.

The answer, Baccellieri says, is more standardization, more consistency, more accountability and making sure students spend as much time as possible in general education classrooms.

He is hiring instructional coaches, evaluators and outside consultants to help principals organize services.

His deputy  Elizabeth Keenan, is from St. Paul, Minnesota, where she helped close the achievement gap between special education students and others.  She says too many students of color are being isolated in separate classrooms.

"What we noticed is that we were placing them in at a very early age--kindergarten, first grade, second grade--and they were not exiting out,” she said. “They were never going into the general education classroom and we saw very low proficiency rates for them. So we can say students need help, but what are the outcomes for that help? If zero percent proficient year after year after year-- then we have to be doing more.”

Inclusion is a key word in special education and most experts agree it is best for students with disabilities to be in general education classes as much as possible.

However, Roback and Norwood, the two mothers, say that there is a danger in pushing inclusion.

Norwood’s son is now in a general education class, but wouldn’t have been ready for one last year, she says.

Roback emphasizes that the law says students should be in the least restrictive environment, which can mean a different thing depending on the student. Further, she says that the focus on standardization completely ignores the fact that the learning plans are supposed to cater to individual student needs.

Venessa Fawley says the combination of the plans to reduce costs and shrink the number of students getting services makes her suspicious concerning what happened to her daughter this Spring.

Venessa Fawley felt she had to fight for her daughter, who’s been diagnosed with autism, after a Chicago school psychologist determined she didn’t have a disability and that she didn’t need supports.(Sarah Karp/WBEZ)

Fawley’s daughter was diagnosed as autistic when she was two years old.

She was finishing preschool in what is called a blended classroom, meaning that special education students are mixed with general education students. The class had four adults and 17 students.

Fawley was shocked when a school psychologist determined that her daughter Laila was probably not autistic and needed no extra supports in kindergarten. That meant that she would be assigned to a kindergarten with 30-some students and one adult.

Fawley says she was deeply worried that her daughter would have a melt down, be socially isolated and, most of all--because she has a food allergy-- would have an allergic reaction and not be able to tell anyone she was sick.

Fawley fought back, filing a due process complaint with the Illinois State Board of Education. In late July, CPS agreed to give Laila an aide and to have her re-evaluated.

“I honestly think this [assigned her daughter to general kindergarten class] was done because of pressure not to diagnose,” she said “They have an attitude of you have to wait to fail. You have to wait to see if these children fail in order to get services. Instead of having them succeed and thrive. And when they do have the supports in place that are successful and it is proven to be successful they are like, nothing is wrong, let's just take it all away.”

Now Fawley is worried about other parents who don’t have the knowledge, time or energy to fight.

“It is easy to cut them. It is easy to deny them services. You know tons of special ed parents are tired,” she says. “We are very tired we have to be an advocate, an attorney before we are parents and that shouldn't be. We are looking out for the best interest of our children.”

Sarah Karp is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow here at @wbezeducation and @sskedreporter.

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