State: CPS Violated Special Ed Law, Needs Intensive Monitoring

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CPS Board of Education photo from Jan. 26, 2017. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
CPS Logo
CPS Board of Education photo from Jan. 26, 2017. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

State: CPS Violated Special Ed Law, Needs Intensive Monitoring

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The state is calling for intensive oversight of Chicago Public Schools’ special education program after finding that reforms put in place two years ago violated federal law, according to Illinois State Board of Education recommendations released Friday.

The far-reaching recommendations include installing a state-appointed monitor for at least three years and giving that monitor final say on essential elements of CPS’ special education program, including policy changes, budgeting, special education placement, and data collection.

Top state Board of Education officials also want to identify children whose services were delayed or denied as a result of CPS’ reforms and to provide a remedy, with the monitor given “full oversight.”

CPS officials said they plan to work with the state to implement the recommendations, with CPS CEO Janice Jackson saying “improving the district’s special education program is among my highest priorities.”

State board of education members are expected to take up these recommendations at their monthly meeting on Wednesday.

“I am pleased that the violations have been vindicated, that they found this was indeed going on,” said Christine Palmieri, an advocate and mother of a special education student. “I really want CPS to be held to the fire on this.”

Palmieri said she’s relieved the state is taking action, but worries a single monitor will be overwhelmed. She and other advocates would like the monitor to have staff and to be drawn from an organization outside the Illinois State Board of Education.

These strong recommendations come after an investigation by the state 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.

The state said that “CPS engaged in policy, procedure or practice applicable to a group of children that is inconsistent with” the federal special education law, known as IDEA. The recommendations include requiring CPS to tell parents of children with disabilities whose services were delayed or denied that the reforms undertaken two years ago violated federal law.

To remedy the problems, the state recommends setting deadlines for key changes to CPS’ special education program and calls on CPS to remove many barriers that led to delays and denials.

CPS officials initially were strongly opposed to a monitor but changed their tune once it became clear this is where the state was headed. Jackson inherited these special education problems when she became CEO in January. She took over for Forrest Claypool, who resigned under pressure. Claypool launched these special education changes and strongly defended them as good for children and an improvement to a long-troubled program. WBEZ also found Claypool’s reforms coincided with budget cuts.

Jackson, though, has acknowledged many of the problems cited by the state and advocates, and has begun making changes. These include increasing the special education budget, hiring more staff, and ending contracts with consultants without education experience who helped orchestrate the overhaul.

“I believe some of the reforms made in prior years were done too quickly and with insufficient parent and educator involvement, and Chicago Public Schools will not make that mistake again,” Jackson said in a statement. “That’s why in recent months we have taken significant steps to improve supports for diverse learners … and that’s why we are fully committed to working with ISBE to implement the recommendations they have made.”

The changes can’t come soon enough for Lawrence White and his seventh grade son.

Before the reforms two years ago, White said his son, who has learning and other disabilities, was flourishing. Then, the aide assigned to help him was pulled, and his performance plummeted. He plans to seek whatever remedies CPS and the state offer for damage caused.

“We have to repair or try to regain those losses,” said White, who wasn’t even aware CPS had implemented a secret overhaul of special education until it was revealed in the WBEZ report. “If you are deficient in something, you can’t add the base level to get it back to level. You have to do above and beyond.”

Chicago’s special education program serves about 50,000 children and costs the school district about $900 million annually.

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