Progressive Caucus to try again to force special ed hearing

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The City Council’s 11-member Progressive Caucus is not letting up in its drive to force a public hearing on what it calls the “mistreatment and cheating” of special needs students at the Chicago Public Schools.

Last month, the Education Committee abruptly canceled a hearing on the volatile issue without explanation. The cancellation occurred days after the resignation of Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), a former school counselor who ran for alderman with heavy support from the Chicago Teachers Union, branded the cancellation a “cover-up” engineered by mayoral allies to avoid embarrassing Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Sadlowski-Garza noted then that parents and teachers had been scheduled to testify about the 181 special ed openings that have denied services to students with special needs, in violation of “individual education plans” that outlined mandated services.

The alderman said the last thing Emanuel wanted was an open hearing that would “basically put CPS on blast.”

On Wednesday, the Progressive Caucus served notice that it plans to try again.

At the Jan. 17 City Council meeting, Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) said he plans to file an official notice, known in parliamentary circles as a Rule 41 of the City Council’s Rules of Order.

If at least 26 of the 34 original co-sponsors go along with the parliamentary maneuver, the stalled resolution would be discharged from committee, forcing the Education Committee Chairman Howard Brookins (21st) to schedule the hearing he canceled.

“Parents of special education children — and all taxpayers in this city — are demanding answers, and they’ve waited long enough,” Munoz was quoted as saying in a press release.

“WBEZ [Radio] found that CPS redirected funds intended for students with special needs, and significantly reduced the programs and specialized supportive services for special education. The public deserves an explanation.”

Sadlowski-Garza argued that aldermen have a “moral and legal imperative to end the mistreatment and cheating” of special needs students.

“CPS leadership must come before the City Council and answer for these violations,” she was quoted as saying.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the Council’s Black Caucus, said parents, teachers and principals have been protesting what he called “this pattern of willful neglect.”

“The Education Committee must meet to look into this apparent stealth scheme to slash the number of students classified as eligible for specialized services,” Sawyer was quoted as saying.

Brookins said he has a child with special needs and shares his colleagues’ desire to hold a public hearing “to find out what the hell they’re doing” at CPS.

Brookins said he canceled the hearing last month because CPS officials said they “weren’t quite ready after the shake-up with Forrest” and needed time to “get their act together.”

“I could have had the meeting and nobody would have showed up. I still have an intent on holding the hearing. But everybody assumes that our committee is over the Board of Education, which it is not,” said Brookins, a candidate for Cook County judge. “If they say, `Go pound sand,’ there’s nothing I can do. I can’t subpoena them. We don’t vote on their budget. I can’t make ’em come.”

The Progressive Caucus has been demanding the hearings in response to an investigative report by WBEZ-FM Radio 91.5.

The public radio station uncovered delays in special education services and disparities among spending on white and on minority students, among other findings.

Under federal law, supervision of special education students is required to be spelled out in an “individualized education program.” Those IEPs are confidential.

Last year, CPS made some changes in how the school district funded services for special education students. At the time, the changes were explained as an attempt to bolster oversight, raise standards and increase test scores among special needs students.

That prompted parents and advocates to charge that CPS had added layers of bureaucracy that delayed services for students. Some of the changes have been eliminated this school year.

Still, the Illinois State Board of Education has launched an investigation into the special ed practices at CPS aimed at determining whether there is, as State School Supt. Tony Smith put it, a “policy environment in CPS” that is “preventing students from being served.”

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