Chicago Public Schools — the nation’s third largest school system — must turn over control of nearly every aspect of its special education program to the state, the Illinois State Board of Education said Wednesday. The board voted to appoint a monitor who will have final say on all policies and budget plans related to special education.
It’s a major blow to CPS’ autonomy and a rare and aggressive move by the state. CPS spends $900 million, or more than 16 percent of its total budget, on special education annually to serve more than 52,000 children with a broad range of special needs, including learning issues and behavioral and physical disabilities.
The board voted to appoint the monitor for at least three years and 40 other “corrective actions” for CPS after accepting the findings of a state investigation that found CPS had violated federal special education laws when it made sweeping changes to its program for disabled students two years ago.
The investigation found “systemic problems” with special education in CPS that “delayed and denied” services to children. That inquiry was prompted by complaints from advocates and a WBEZ report that mirrored the state’s findings.
WBEZ Investigation: CPS Secretly Overhauled Special Education At Students’ Expense
The state board Wednesday also voted to require the monitor and CPS to identify students harmed by the 2016 overhaul and offer them the opportunity to pursue a remedy.
Stephanie Jones, the ISBE general counsel who oversaw the investigation, called this a “great day,” but said the hard work had only just begun.
“It is the first day of a tremendous amount of work to come to ensure we have a system within the city of Chicago that provides special education students the services that they deserve,” Jones said.
Jones acknowledged concerns raised by special education advocates that a single monitor couldn’t handle the workload that lies ahead and said a team of people inside the State Board of Education will be assembled to support the monitor.
‘A good start’
The adoption of these recommendations is the culmination of an inquiry process that started in January. The extensive review involved a panel of experts holding several and collecting more than 800 pages of documents.
The conclusions were damning. The state found new CPS policies and procedures around key aspects of special education created roadblocks to access and violated federal law guaranteeing disabled students’ rights to an appropriate education. Specifically, children didn’t get transportation, one-on-one aides to assist them, and other needed services because of new onerous requirements around data collection and around how students are identified for special education.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson said she will accept the monitor and will work with the state, though she initially opposed a monitor. She noted that CPS already was taking steps to improve special education, including increasing funding and staff, and would do more on it its own. Jackson has said the problems with the overhaul had to do with implementation, but neither she nor Mayor Rahm Emanuel have acknowledged the fundamental problems with the new policies and procedures.
State Schools Superintendent Tony Smith said he pushed hard to require changes in place by the new school, saying there was no time to waste.
“There has been a level of trust that has been lost, and we want to help CPS regain the trust … Naming things and being open and honest to how that happened so we can continue to foster that trust,” Smith said.
Special education advocates and some state lawmakers celebrated the state’s actions, but said more was needed.
“Whereas I think — and many of us of think — this is a good start, I personally think it does not go far enough,” said state Rep. Fred Crespo, (D-Streamwood) who chairs a House education committee that held hearings on CPS’ special education program. He was flanked by several special education advocates at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
His Republican colleague on the committee, Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Sycamore), accused CPS of a pattern of “tending to slow walk everything.”
“CPS tends to say they’ll do something” he said. “They tend to give the image of working with us, but they don’t. And that’s what I’m concerned with right now as we deal with the special education issue.”
Pritchard also noted that an aspect of CPS’ long-troubled special education program was under court monitoring until just a few years ago.
Pushing CPS for more
Crespo said he is considering introducing legislation in the next few days to push CPS to go further.
This includes requiring CPS to pay a minimum of $10 million to students whose services were delayed or denied, and mandating that CPS pay $500,000 for parent training and distribute the findings of the state’s investigation and remedies to all CPS parents. He also wants to require ISBE to review whether CPS’ special education policies disproportionately impact minority students of color.
Crespo’s legislative ideas mirror many raised by special education advocates.
Throughout the 2016-2017 school year, those advocates and parents complained to Chicago Board of Education members that support and services were being stripped from students. Then-CPS CEO Forrest Claypool insisted they were incorrect and assured board members that students were getting all legally required services.
Then, WBEZ’s investigation revealed that CPS hired outside auditors to orchestrate an overhaul of special education. Those auditors, with no experience in special education, helped write the policy and procedures. WBEZ’s investigation found the school district also changed the way it provided money to schools and cut special education spending, while Claypool repeatedly insisted the school district was not trying to save money.
Emboldened, the advocates urged the state to step in.
On Wednesday, one of those advocates called the state’s actions a beginning but still declared a significant victory.
“I am very grateful that ISBE took some action and conducted this inquiry because their findings were what we, as advocates, were saying for almost two years now,” said Mary Hughes, a CPS parent and advocate with the group Raise Your Hand. “It was very validating to hear an elected body take all of our stories and do something about them and take care of our children.”
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.