Chicago and Illinois lose when CPS fails to serve special education kids

The failure dates back decades. And it has to end.

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Special education learning device

Celeste O’Connor and her daughter Chloe Eugenio try to find certain word on a device that lets her speak at their Chicago home on Aug. 5.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

We’d like to avoid the word “intentional.”

That’s the word parents often use when complaining that administrators at the Chicago Public Schools are dragging their feet when it comes to providing full legally required services for students in special education programs, and when it comes to compensating families that have been forced to pay for such services out of their own pockets.

CPS has a history of falling short when it comes to providing educational services for kids with disabilities, which is why parents might understandably suspect that the district’s recent failures to do the job right, as required by state law, is at least somewhat intentional. That CPS is simply trying to minimize its responsibilities.

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But we don’t know that. Maybe — actually, certainly — there’s real truth to the district’s defense that the service delays of the last two years were caused by the teachers’ strike of 2019 and the pandemic. Remote learning is always second best to in-class learning, and often third best when it comes to kids with disabilities.

Failure for decades

We know this for sure: CPS continues to fail to meet the needs of too many kids in its special education program, and that’s nothing new. It is a failure that dates back decades. It has to end.We’re also inclined to believe, given the district’s track record on this, that the blame lies heavily with the administration of CPS itself.

It’s hard to figure otherwise when you consider, as recently reported by WBEZ and the Sun-Times, that 60 employees in the CPS special education department have left in the last two years. What, other than internal dissent and frustration, might explain that? And when you also consider that some 120 school psychologists, social workers and language therapists just last month signed a letter to CPS officials detailing “grave concerns regarding the current leadership” of the district’s special education office. The letter cited “spiteful, obstructive and incompetent behaviors.”

On Thursday, the district took an overdue step in right direction, announcing that it is offering cash payments of between $400 and $4,000 to families whose disabled children were wrongly denied special education services, such as for transportation or therapy, between 2016 and 2018. But it remains on CPS to get this right — let’s see how this plays out.

And it is on the Illinois Legislature to put more pressure on the school district.

State Rep. Fred Crespo, (D-Streamwood), who three years ago sponsored the law that requires CPS to provide compensatory services to families short-changed by the district, said lawmakers could pass new legislation to give the Illinois State Board of Education more monitoring authority over any school district that fails kids in these situations.

After a state investigation in 2018 concluded that CPS for two years had illegally refused vital services to thousands of kids, state officials ordered the district to make up for the disservice by setting aside $10 million to help the families recover.

But the results of that compensatory services program, as WBEZ and the Sun-Times found, read like another layer of defeat.

Records show that 10,515 special education students were wrongfully denied services in 2018, and only 214 students — or 2% — have received compensatory assistance as of July 2021.

Some 1,500 children have been identified as potentially harmed by this CPS failure. Yet only 16 of those students, or 1%, have received compensatory help, with another 360 deemed ineligible for compensation because they could not prove their case.

Danger of falling behind

When CPS fails to provide adequate resources and support, kids fall behind. In some cases never to catch up.

“We are also looking at a bump of students who will end up institutionalized or incarcerated, if CPS continues to fail,” Amber Smock, advocacy director for Access Living, the Chicago-based disability rights organization, told the Sun-Times Editorial Board. “Although Illinois is seeing major progress and heavy investment in criminal [justice] system reform, that work is meaningless when CPS special education fails students from the outset.”

In 2018, the Illinois State Board of Education appointed an independent monitor to ensure that CPS was not denying or delaying special education services to students. The stated goal was a “road to transformation.” But special education advocates warned at the time that a single monitor would not sufficiently do the job in the third largest school district in the country. Three years later, that appears to have been the case.

Crespo told us he’d like to see the monitoring effort expanded, with two monitors instead of one, and locked in for at least two more years.

Three years ago, when we were working on an editorial about a shortage of nurses at CPS for kids with disabilities, the late Marca Bristo, then president of Access Living, told us the real heart of the problem is how society values — or fails to value — kids with disabilities. When those kids are finally seen as equals, she said, the services they require no longer will be seen as “extras.”

That was less a criticism of CPS than of us all.

Send letters toletters@suntimes.com.

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