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Brown: Parents say CPS pits special ed students’ needs vs. others

Terri Smith-Roback joined other special education parents to protest the new CPS budget at the CPS headquarters building in the Loop on Dec. 7, 2016. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools officials gave a lengthy presentation Wednesday to the Board of Education about how special education students are the district’s first priority.

To put it mildly, that is not a widely held view of the people who rely on the district for special ed services, which is why the presentation was necessary in the first place.

“There are people in the audience who I can see don’t agree with what they’re hearing,” school board President Frank Clark observed at one point.

No, they don’t.

Earlier Wednesday, a petition bearing the names of nearly 600 local school council members from 178 different schools was submitted to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, imploring him to rethink CPS’ approach to budgeting for special education students.

Petitions don’t normally move me. But the breadth of the signatories to this one suggests there is a problem here that at least deserves greater attention.


The local school council members say the problem is caused by a change in how CPS did its budgeting for this year.

For starters, individual school principals were given 4 percent less money to cover their special education needs for 2016-2017 than was spent in the previous year.

In addition, instead of special ed funding being centrally budgeted as in the past, schools were given their special ed money together with the general education funding and were instructed to use it to serve the needs of all their students — with special ed requirements to be funded first.

An appeals process was established to allow schools to make their case to recover the lost 4 percent.

Local school council members say the practical effect of this has been to pit the needs of special ed students against the rest of the student population.

In some cases, they say it’s the students in need of special ed services who are losing out, mostly in the form of schools not making an effort to properly identify and evaluate them.

In other schools, they say it’s the general education students who are feeling the brunt of the change, either in the form of larger classrooms or other school personnel cuts.

Only a small percentage of schools have been able to recoup the lost money through the appeals process.

Part of me believes the real problem is just that there isn’t enough money to go around, and this is simply how it’s showing up at the school level.

When resources are scarce, the more costly specialized needs of special ed students are always in conflict with funding for other students.

But nobody from CPS made that point during the presentation to the school board.

Instead, they talked about how they held back that 4 percent from the schools to more strategically spend it where it is needed over the course of a school year, when the needs of individual schools often change as special ed students are added or subtracted.

In addition, they say they need to use the money to improve academic outcomes for special ed students, which have lagged behind the rest of the CPS student body over the past decade.

As always, schools CEO Forrest Claypool stressed that if anyone knows of a particular student who isn’t receiving the services to which they believe they are entitled, they should come forward.

One of the fallacies there is that some parents are much better than others at advocating for their children’s needs.

I can’t tell you who is right in this situation, but my gut tells me that if all those grassroots people think there is a problem, then there’s a problem.

It was evident from Wednesday’s meeting that the complaints at least have got the attention of the school board.

They deserve to get Emanuel’s attention, too.