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EDITORIAL: Where Chicago Public Schools went wrong on special education

From the start of the 2016-17 school year, Chicago parents whose children were in special education began to see big changes in their kids’ schooling that left many of them scrambling for answers and help.

Some with kids in preschool at the Chicago Public Schools complained their children no longer had bus service. Students who in the past had classroom aides no longer had them, or had less help. Getting extra help for a child became an exhaustive process, more so than in the past.

Now we know why. Amid a budget crisis, CPS not only cut funding for special education last year, but the school district also added layers of bureaucracy that made it tougher for parents and teachers to get children extra help required by law, according to a report by WBEZ-91.5 FM.


CPS is up against serious financial problems. The district is looking for every way to serve students more efficiently, without diminishing the quality of kids’ education. The district also has serious concerns that African-American and Latino children, especially boys, are being diagnosed with learning or behavioral disabilities out of cultural biases. We’ve seen that before. Not too long ago, far too many black kids in America were being prescribed Ritalin to treat flawed diagnoses of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders.

To that extent, we think it is laudable to review special education guidelines. What creates uneasiness is how CPS drew conclusions and made decisions.

Without a doubt, there is a need for an independent assessment rooted in the expertise of people who work in special education. Last year, CPS produced a manual for special education that was strongly influenced by consultants with no background in special education. Basically, they were bean counters.

With all respect to CPS, they’re under great pressure to cut money. That creates a situation where they have conflicting agendas, whether its top executives realize it or not.

In 2015-2016, according to a district document, 13.4 percent of CPS students had individualized education programs, or IEPs. That number is consistent with the national average and slightly lower than the statewide average of 14 percent. But the district noted it had higher percentages for African-American boys (20 percent) and Hispanic boys (18 percent) with individualized plans. In the document, CPS said African-American and Hispanic boys are far more likely to be identified as needing special education than white males. There was also a concern that students with disabilities were not making much academic progress.

But that doesn’t justify some of the drastic measures CPS took. For instance, at the start of the last school year, CPS cut back bus service for some children in special education. It was restored after an outcry by parents.

Some families turned to doctors and lawyers when services their children had received in the past were scaled back. Parents and teachers complained of a lengthy process that could take weeks or months and rigorous amounts of paperwork to get appropriate services for a child. Many families likely gave up.

WBEZ found that children last year got less help from specialists, such as occupational therapists and psychologists. Time with psychologists dropped by nearly 30 percent.

It’s expensive to educate kids with special needs. They require more help. CPS spent $14,000 per student on special education last year, about $300 below the state average, WBEZ reported. Cutting back services will not help kids improve in the classroom. We wouldn’t be surprised if it has the opposite effect.

CPS eventually revised the manual worked on by consultants who didn’t have expertise in special education. And some special ed funding was restored.

“When we heard concerns from educators and families last fall about the amount of paperwork, we adjusted our requirements so that they could be met more easily,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner wrote in an email. “This system is certainly a work in progress, and we’re happy to make adjustments that make sense as we continue to work with educators, specialists, attorneys and families.”

Therein lies the key to improving the system. CPS must spend more time with educators, specialists, education lawyers and families and less time with consultants who don’t have a clue about special education.

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