State Board Approves Special Education Monitor, Reforms for CPS

Parents of students in special education say they’re concerned that the state’s recommendations to reform Chicago Public Schools’ special education program don’t go far enough.

After a monthslong investigation into the program, the Illinois State Board of Education voted Wednesday to approve an independent monitor to oversee CPS as it works to implement changes.

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Advocates say a single independent monitor won’t be enough to clean things up.

“We cannot change this culture or practice at CPS without robust supports,” said Amy Zimmerman of the Legal Council for Health Justice, “and that’s going to require a significant amount not only of monitoring and ensuring compliance with the remedies that ISBE has put forth, but there’s also a requirement for a lot of technical assistance that they’re going to need.”

Local advocates first called for an investigation into the district last year following a WBEZ report that revealed CPS had used outside auditors to secretly overhaul its special education practices and limit both its funding and services.

The State Board of Education began its public inquiry process late last fall and found the district was in violation of a laundry list of policies under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, including those surrounding software the district uses to create and manage Individual Education Plans (IEPs), documentation and data collection, budgeting, the appeals process and providing transportation.

Christine Palmieri, whose fourth grade son attends Blaine Elementary in Lakeview, says for at least six months her autistic son was denied services he needs, and that the appeals process was cumbersome.

“What’s really hard is determining regression and trajectory for students on the spectrum,” she said. “Having going without proper supports and services for so long, we’re rebuilding, but we’re starting from a place that’s so far behind that I don’t really know if he’ll ever meet the same trajectory that he might have, had services been in place.”

The independent monitor has quite a lot of responsibility, including making sure the IEP software is working and that everyone who needs access to it has it.

The district will have to get approval from the monitor to make any changes to special education policies or procedures, access to any and all meetings and trainings, as well as serving as the third party when staff, parents or advocates have a concern to raise.

Even the state board acknowledges it will be a heavy lift.

“It is a robust report,” said Stephanie Jones, general counsel for ISBE. “There’s a lot of requirements, and it’s probably more than one person can do. We acknowledge that. But we do believe that we have the staffers in the agency to support the monitor and provide the services that ISBE is requiring of itself to provide, through the recommendations, and also provide the oversight that we believe CPS needs.”

Jones says this doesn’t mean the state couldn’t appoint additional staffers to work on reform in several months or even a year if it realizes more people are needed.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson has previously said she had hoped the district wouldn’t need a monitor, and that she felt the district could make reforms with its own internal process.

But during a press conference Tuesday with the mayor, said she respects the state’s decision.

“We respect the findings, and we’re going to do everything we can do to right the wrongs, but also respect the process,” Jackson said.

That said, the advocates we spoke with question some of the reforms Jackson says she’s implemented. They conducted their own survey of 2,000 teachers, parents and staff at CPS.

A few surprising results: 94 percent of respondents -- that’s 1,800 teachers -- said they’d never had training on the new CPS Special Education Procedural Manual from February of this year. (You can see the full results of the survey here.)

The independent monitor will be on the job for three years. For now, the general counsel for ISBE and the state’s director of special education will serve the role, until the right attorney is found.

Follow Brandis Friedman on Twitter @BrandisFriedman

Related stories:

CPS Hopes to ‘Right the Wrongs,’ Will Accept Special Education Monitor

Advocates Respond to Special Education Investigation at CPS

ISBE Announces Hearings on CPS Special Education Practices

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