Cielo Munoz, a veteran special education teacher at William Penn Elementary School, was trying to explain why it’s important that Chicago Public Schools cut one of the two assistants from her classroom.
“I have three students with wheelchairs,” Munoz told me. “They need diaper changes. Some of them are not verbal.”
Munoz teaches sixth through eighth graders with what are called “moderate cognitive disabilities,” problems you and I might consider severe. She has 10 students in her classroom, two more than at the start of last year.
Some of those students are quite big, she said, and when it comes time to change their diapers, she now has to borrow an assistant from another classroom to help do the lifting. That’s just one example.
I met Munoz outside the Chicago Board of Education meeting, where teachers and parents of special ed students had turned out in force to protest an unexpected $12 million round of cuts to special ed services.
These cuts follow an earlier $42 million in cuts to special ed announced over the summer, the combined effect of which parents and teachers say has left the district unable to provide the services required by law.
In anticipation of the complaints, a CPS official earlier at the board meeting made a slide presentation seeking to explain the cuts as part of a well-considered policy change by the district.
The gist of special education chief Markay Winston’s presentation was that the district is seeking a “results driven system of accountability” that will move more special ed students — or “diverse learners” as they are called in the current education jargon — into regular classrooms and on to college.
Munoz wasn’t sure how any of that was supposed to help her students who need a diaper change.
“More than likely they will not go to college,” said Munoz, noting that most of her students in the Near Southwest Side school cannot write.
“It looked like they were only talking about learning disabled students, not cognitive disabled,” said Munoz, in reference to the large spectrum of “special needs” that qualify for special education help.
One of the parents told me about how important the special ed assistants are in the case of autistic kids known as “runners” who will make their escape from a classroom and wander off when the teacher’s attention is diverted.
The Chicago Teachers Union reported Tuesday that 161 schools are losing special ed teachers and 185 are losing aides.
“They’re the best students. They’re the sweetest kids you can ever see,” Munoz said of her own students.
But, of course, special ed students are also expensive to educate, and there’s the rub.
Winston said the district has more special ed staff members than it did five years ago but fewer students, implying that it had more than it needed, which I highly doubt.
I’m no expert in this subject area, and don’t want to pretend otherwise, but I know enough about government to know when somebody is trying to put a positive spin on making cuts to save money.
The special ed cuts even feature a return by the CPS bureaucracy to the concept of “principal autonomy” by which school principals are given less money to spend and told that with the freedom to spend it as they wish they can accomplish more.
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) appeared on the parents’ behalf to offer a mild threat in language he thought the board could appreciate.
“These children need more assistance, not less,” he said, adding that “the lawsuits that will rain down” on the board by special ed parents will cost more than the cuts are projected to save.
Chicago Public Schools Forrest Claypool was adamant that the board recognizes its responsibilities to special education students and that individuals not receiving the prescribed services be brought to his attention.
Another option would be to contact me.