A state investigation found “systemic problems” with special education in Chicago Public Schools that “delayed and denied” services to children, according to a report released by the Illinois State Board of Education Wednesday.
State board of education members were briefed Wednesday on the report, the culmination of an extensive investigation into Chicago Public Schools’ special education program.
A “public inquiry” team appointed by the state began investigating CPS late last year after a WBEZ series on problems with special education and after advocates demanded action.
Advocates alleged that a recent overhaul of special education by the school district led to delays and cutbacks in services for students. The program serves about 50,000 children and costs the school district about $900 million annually.
WBEZ reporter Sarah Karp shares highlights from the report and the state of special education in Chicago now.
State documents service delays and denials
Sarah Karp: It’s important to start by saying that this type of inquiry by the state board of education is unprecedented. The state charged a panel of lawyers to do a very thorough investigation.
They collected more than 8,000 pages of documents and held community meetings and official hearings that included hours and hours of testimony.
The findings are very technical. Special education is complicated and dictated by many laws and rules.
But here’s the bottom line: For the most part, the state panel found systemic problems with the procedures put in place by Chicago Public Schools in the 2016-2017 school year. The panel said some of these new procedures, which are still in place this year, resulted in delays in support for kids or in some cases wrongful denials.
The inquiry team also found that the appeals system put in place for schools to ask for more help for their students was ineffective and led to even more delays and denials.
Advocates say findings back up their concerns
Karp: The head of special education for CPS was at the board meeting Wednesday and told board members that the school district is already making changes and is open to collaborating with the state, parents, and advocates. But she didn’t comment specifically on the findings.
After the meeting, advocates said they thought this was a win, that the inquiry team had backed up all their claims.
However, special education attorney Matt Cohen said he thought they could have gone a step further.
“The findings don’t capture the fact that thousands are injured by these policies,” Cohen said. “Kids didn’t get aides. They didn’t get summer school. They didn’t get transportation” to school.
The inquiry team also did not address why the school district overhauled special education.
Advocates charge it was an attempt by the cash-strapped school district to save money. CPS CEO Janice Jackson has admitted publicly that cost was a factor, and some documents collected by the state actually reference things like cost-benefit analyses being done to see how changes would affect the bottom line.
But CPS also has maintained that part of the impetus for putting in new systems and procedures was to make sure that services were consistent throughout the district and to make sure kids were getting support to help them perform better academically.
What happens next
Karp: Now that the findings are out, state board members have a month to go over them. At the May board meeting, the state board of education’s general counsel will issue recommendations.
A coalition of special education advocates wants the state to appoint a monitor that CPS would have to go through before implementing any new policies.
They also want the school district to put aside a pot of $10 million for parents who feel their children didn’t get services because of this overhaul.
CPS strongly opposed the appointment of an independent monitor. Also, CPS officials say that the state should help provide additional money for services.
Steps CPS is taking to improve special education
Karp: Forrest Claypool, the Schools CEO that spearheaded the overhaul, is no longer with school district.
The overhaul came out of his office, and the WBEZ investigation found he hired politically connected consultants to orchestrate it. These were auditors who didn’t have any experience with special education. And while he downplayed their role, the new CEO Janice Jackson says she’s no longer using any of these consultants.
Claypool also denied he was cutting special education. But it is now clear the budget was cut.
And on Tuesday, Jackson announced she was restoring special education funding. Special education will get an additional $29 million next school year. It’s the only area that seems to be getting a major boost.
Jackson has said that one of her top priorities is getting special education right.
But advocates and parents say they are still experiencing problems. They say that CPS is taking baby steps forward, but there’s a long way to go.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.