Leaders at Chicago Public Schools are asking for the state’s help in reviewing and reforming its special education offerings, which they admit have been subject to “several problems” and are in need of “fundamental changes.”
District officials in a letter to the Illinois State Board of Education last week requested the creation of a new working group of special education experts and advocates to review CPS’ current approach.
“ISBE, as the official education standards-setting body in Illinois, is well-positioned to objectively sort through the myriad of issues and help lead a process that can ultimately improve both the understanding of CPS’ reforms and the actual provision of services to special education children, including the effectiveness of those services,” district CEO Forrest Claypool, Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson and Diverse Learner Chief Elizabeth Keenan wrote in the letter.
The request comes about a month after a WBEZ investigation revealed CPS used outside auditors to limit both its special education funding and services last year. The district has disputed the findings in that report – and continues to do so – but acknowledged in the letter that it “raised legitimate questions for the public.”
“From our perspective, CPS’ special education offerings have been subject to several problems over the years,” the letter states.
“As detailed in our own examination, we strongly believe that the status quo of past years is unacceptable, and that fundamental changes are necessary to ensure equity and the creation of what has been missing – a culture of accountability for the actual academic progress of children with disabilities.”
WBEZ stands by its reporting, in which it claimed one-on-one aides and busing were scaled back through a 2016 overhaul that made it more difficult for diverse learners to get necessary services.
Last year, CPS also implemented an unpopular process that forced schools to file an appeal in order to receive up to 4 percent of their special education funding that was automatically held back by the district. Citing feedback from principals, CPS dropped that policy from this year’s school budgets.
Earlier this month, more than a dozen local organizations including the Chicago Teachers Union, disability advocates Access Living and the Ounce of Prevention Fund sent their own joint letter to ISBE asking it to intervene with CPS’ special education programming and conduct its own investigation of WBEZ’s findings.
“We believe the situation may be so egregious that ISBE may be required following an investigation to appoint an outside expert to facilitate corrective action in relationship to the CPS special education program,” their letter states. “It should be expected that these recommendations may and most likely will include significant changes in CPS special education practices.”
Those groups outlined several issues they have with the district’s existing policies, claiming special and general education services are placed into direct competition for funding, and that special education budget items have been consolidated into larger buckets that “obscure (CPS') allocation of special education funds.”
CPS says it “welcome(s) this conversation,” but also attempted to rebut many of those claims in an appendix to its own letter.
The district says it wants the working group to begin meeting as soon as possible in order to provide final recommendations by next spring.
“Going forward, we know that CPS must be more inclusive and open to ongoing feedback,” the district letter states. “We welcome the opportunity to roll up our sleeves and work alongside those leaders and experts of goodwill who can help us achieve our common goal: to give all children, regardless of their needs, the opportunity to achieve their full potential in school and in life.”
Aug. 2: Citing principal feedback, CPS says it will no longer withhold 4 percent of schools’ special education funding and will instead using central contingency funds to grant appeals for both general and special education resources.
July 20: Teachers and principals spent the past year criticizing the way Chicago Public Schools’ handled special education funding. The district now says it’s planning major changes in the new fiscal year.
Jan. 24: Is CPS denying support services for children with special needs in order to save money? We speak with the author of a new report from the Better Government Association.