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Monitor for CPS special education program vows change, but advocates cry foul

A Chicago Public Schools proposal released Tuesday calls for $189 million in spending for "critical facility needs." Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

A Chicago Public Schools proposal released Tuesday calls for $189 million in spending for "critical facility needs." Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

The Illinois State Board of Education named an independent monitor last week to oversee the beleaguered Chicago Public Schools special education program — but teachers union officials and advocacy groups say it’s not enough.

Laura Boedeker was appointed monitor to help CPS improve special ed services and act as a liaison between the district and state board, responsible for reviewing policies and supporting students impacted by policy failures, the board announced Wednesday. 

“We are at a critical crossroads regarding our diverse learners in Chicago,” Boedeker said in a statement. “We need genuine collaboration to facilitate groundbreaking changes and improvements in our practices regarding special education.”

Laura Boedeker | ISBE photo

Laura Boedeker | ISBE photo

The appointment comes after a state investigation earlier this year found CPS had violated a handful of federal laws under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Months prior, WBEZ had uncovered a secret special education overhaul in 2016 under ousted CEO Forrest Claypool and officials without special education expertise.

Boedeker, who starts Monday, previously worked with CPS as an in-house legal counsel and a learning specialist supporting special education services.

That history is cause for concern, according to Chicago Teachers Union executive board member Sarah Chambers, who said she is “outraged.”

“The monitor is supposed to be an unbiased monitor,” she said.

Sarah Chambers pictured in 2014. | Sun-Times file photo

Sarah Chambers pictured in 2014. | Sun-Times file photo

But ISBE general counsel Stephanie Jones said it is to Boedeker’s advantage that she “knows the system” and its strengths and weaknesses.

Though advocates had opposed any candidate with CPS experience, Jones said every applicant had worked with the district to some degree. She added that she did not receive applications from any advocacy groups.

“The most important part of our decision to hire Laura was her focus on kids,” Jones said. “The only thing that will sway her are the needs of kids.”

Boedeker declined to comment.

ISBE is also aiming to hire three additional staff members by August for Chicago’s regional office of education. 

Matt Cohen, an attorney representing advocacy groups who thinks Boedeker may not be “sufficiently independent for the job,” said he fears the three new hires don’t provide enough manpower. 

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“CPS is already claiming that they fixed most of the problems,” Cohen said. “Many of those problems have not been fixed, and they’re trying to sweep them under the carpet.”

CPS budgeted about $29 million less for special education in the 2016-17 school year than the year prior, WBEZ reported. This resulted in 350 fewer special education teachers and a 12 percent decrease in time students spent with specialists.

ISBE unanimously voted last month to appoint a state monitor.

Advocates have said the monitoring process should last five years instead of the three mandated by ISBE. They have also called for $10 million to fund compensatory services for children who were denied them.

Jones said instead of “writing checks,” ISBE hopes to create an action plan to provide students with necessary services.

“Compensatory education is designed to be a way to correct the damage that a student suffered as a loss of services,” she said. “There’s not a price tag that we can put on that, so we decided not to put a price tag on it at all.”

She also said ISBE has “every intent” of reviewing and potentially extending the initial three-year monitoring period.

Beyond logistical concerns, Cohen said CPS needs a deeper administrative overhaul. There is still “no good mechanism for ensuring that kids get the things that they lost” — especially when the people proposing solutions are where the problems started, he said.

“The CPS administration and board should be removed,” Cohen said. “The people making these decisions were working at CPS while this was happening.”