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CPS promises cash payments for families denied special ed services

Under a proposal announced this week, parents can claim between $400 and $4,000 for each year of a missed service, such as transportation or therapy.

Celeste O’Connor and her daughter Chloe Eugenio try to find certain word on a device that lets her speak at their home in Wrightwood Neighbors, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools plans to offer cash payments to families whose disabled children were wrongly denied special education services between 2016 and 2018.

The payments to the families of up to 12,000 current and former students could cost the school district as much as $22 million. That figure is based on a WBEZ and Chicago Sun-Times analysis of information provided by CPS on the number of students denied services, what services were missed and the amount CPS says it will pay for each missed service. CPS disputes the figure but did not elaborate and did not provide an amount it expects to spend.

The announcement Wednesday comes three years after the state found that the school district’s actions were illegal. It had ordered CPS to provide remedies to harmed students. Last week, the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ reported that of the more than 10,000 students whom the school district acknowledged were harmed, only 2% had received any remedy, such as free access to new therapies, tutoring or reimbursement for transportation.

The school district said it also will provide an automatic remedy to another 1,400 students. Previously, it had said these students “may have been harmed” but required parents to prove it in a meeting with school officials.

Under the new plan, which must be approved by the Board of Education, parents can claim between $400 and $4,000 for each year of a missed service, such as transportation or therapy. The amounts differ depending on what service was denied. CPS says it will begin contacting families to inform them of their remedy amounts beginning in October.

CPS officials said they have been “wholly committed” to making students whole who were harmed. But they said outreach to parents about the remedies was thwarted by the pandemic. They said the offer of a cash payment should speed things up.

“It is the best course of action to ensure a timely resolution that also allows parents more flexibility and choice in how they support their children,” spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement.

Special education advocates did not buy the excuse that the pandemic was the reason the remedies were delayed. They said the special education department was still rife with problems, including a mass exodus of staff and charges of a toxic environment.

They also accused the school district of dragging its feet by creating such a complicated process — a charge the district strongly denies — and failing to communicate to parents what happened and what they could receive.

Still, the advocates lauded this move by the school district. Special Education Advocate Terri Smith-Roback called this a “huge win.”

“It streamlines the process and gives parents agency around how to spend the money that they are awarded,” she said.

Advocates did raise some concerns. Roback said the offer of $500 a year for families denied transportation is too low. Parents who were denied transportation sent their children to a specialized class or cluster program that was outside their neighborhood, she said.

Barb Cohen, an advocate for the Legal Council for Health Justice, said the point of the remedies was to “make students whole” after a year or two of not having summer school, an aide to help them focus in class or to make up for a delay in being identified for services.

“The solution of sending families a check is far preferable to the interminable delays and incompetent communication efforts that we’ve seen over the past couple of years, but I wonder if sending families a check will make them whole,” she said.

Just recently, the district opened the door for CPS teachers to provide tutoring for harmed students. This is something that advocates pushed for and now they worry parents won’t be incentivized to use their cash payout for the tutoring.

Another question is to what extent CPS will reach out to families that have left the school district. About a third of the more than 10,000 students identified are no longer active in Chicago Public Schools. Some have graduated, but others are either lost to the district, dropped out or transferred.

The illegal overhaul of special education happened when CPS was led by Forrest Claypool and Janice Jackson. As Jackson was exiting this spring, Jackson told the Sun-Times she wished she had done more for special education students.

Contributing: Nader Issa

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Nader Issa is the Sun-Times education reporter.