CTU Lawsuit Over Special Education Amid Pandemic Draws Harsh Rebuke

The union’s lawsuit against the U.S. Education Secretary and Chicago Public Schools is over a new mandate for special needs students during the school shutdown.

Sharkey
Chicago Teachers Union, led by president Jesse Sharkey, filed a federal lawsuit this week against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Chicago Public Schools. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
Sharkey
Chicago Teachers Union, led by president Jesse Sharkey, filed a federal lawsuit this week against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Chicago Public Schools. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

CTU Lawsuit Over Special Education Amid Pandemic Draws Harsh Rebuke

The union’s lawsuit against the U.S. Education Secretary and Chicago Public Schools is over a new mandate for special needs students during the school shutdown.

A federal lawsuit filed by the Chicago Teachers Union over a requirement that all special education students get individualized remote learning plans drew harsh criticism from the two defendants — Chicago Public Schools and U.S. Education Secretary Betsey DeVos.

Chicago Public Schools issued a statement that read in part: “Make no mistake: this lawsuit against the district is not about helping students — it’s about avoiding the necessary steps to ensure our most vulnerable students are supported during this unprecedented crisis.”

In an email, DeVos’ office told the Chicago Tribune that “the union is making excuses for why they can’t educate all students instead of figuring out a way to make it happen.”

A CPS official says the directive from the district only calls for teachers to make “basic accommodations” and to do “what is necessary when planning their lessons and services under unusual circumstances for special education students.”

But the union contends the requirement means teachers and clinicians must set up between 50,000 and 70,000 meetings with parents in order to make changes to the individual education plans of students, which is a legal, federally-mandated document. One special education teacher, who also serves as a case manager, said it would take her at least 27 hours on top of her regular teaching duties to reach the parents of all 83 disabled students at her school and get their approval to alter the plans.

Teachers say this is unreasonable and is taking instruction time away from students.

In the lawsuit, the union contends DeVos failed by not asking Congress to waive certain provisions of the federal law that protects the rights of disabled students. It says this lack of action opened the door to CPS implementing the remote learning plan mandate.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the union is demanding that the federal government and school district take steps to improve special education for students, rather than requiring more paperwork.

“It takes more than putting your head in the sand and passing the bag to the person below you,” Sharkey said. “So the federal government passed the bag to the state, the state to the district, the district passes it to teachers. We are not the ones willing to be left holding that bag when we are working ourselves silly to make special education work during the course of the pandemic.”

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