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Emanuel, Jackson offer reluctant embrace of independent monitor over special ed

Janice Jackson Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel discuss the decision by the Illinois State Board of Education to appoint an independent monitor over special education in the district. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his handpicked schools CEO Janice Jackson on Tuesday accepted the independent monitor they had hoped to avoid to remedy a 2016 special education overhaul that violated the federal law that protects special education students.

On Friday, the Illinois State Board of Education took the rare step of recommending an independent monitor empowered to independently review the special ed staffing formula and budget plan at CPS.

The monitor would also be granted sweeping authority to approve any changes to special education and recommend a way to provide make-up services for needy students wrongly denied the special education services they need.

That’s a whole lot of power for a notoriously controlling mayor to cede to a higher authority.

And it will potentially cost a whole lot of money for a school system only beginning to emerge from a decades-long financial crisis after a $450 million cash infusion from the state.

But at an unrelated news conference at Crane Medical Preparatory High School, called to announce a $75 million investment in new science labs, Emanuel and Jackson both said they are prepared to swallow hard and take that punishment.

Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel greets students at Crane Medical Preparatory High School, where he and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced a $75 million program to upgrade school science labs. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

“We entered [into] this process in good faith and we knew that we would have to accept any recommendations that came out of it. … We respect the findings and we’re gonna do everything that we can do to right the wrongs, but also respect the process,” Jackson said.

“Of course, my hope was that we would not need a monitor. But, the folks as ISBE … feel that’s what’s needed in order to ensure those recommendations and reforms are put in place. And we’re going to do just that.”

Jackson also pointed to the progress she has made in reversing the special education missteps at CPS made by her predecessor, Forrest Claypool.

“Adding additional positions, rolling back some of the policies and procedures that we thought needed to be taken away because we heard from parents and advocates that these things were not what was in the best interest of children,” Jackson said.

Emanuel then stepped to the podium and offered a one-word answer when was asked how he felt about an independent monitor.

“Ditto,” the mayor said, echoing Jackson’s reluctant embrace.

“I applaud Janice for being open and saying we need some changes here building on the changes we already made. … If you’re gonna make improvements, you’ve got to acknowledge where you have some blemishes and I applaud her leadership in that effort.”

Last month, an exhaustive investigation by the Illinois State Board of Education concluded that a 2016 special ed overhaul at CPS had delayed and denied services to needy students.

The investigation also uncovered significant problems with CPS’ electronic forms used to develop individual programs for kids in need of special education services. Updating those forms often required the approval of a school principal or a district official, who sometimes didn’t show up for meetings where the changes were to be made, delaying services for students.

The state overhaul was triggered by an investigation by WBEZ Radio.

As for the $75 million investment in new high school science labs, it will be bankrolled by the $45 million property tax levy for school construction imposed by the City Council in 2015.

It will provide the facilities to accommodate a 2017 change in the high school science curriculum and the graduation requirements for high school seniors.

Currently, all high school students must earn three credits in science including one in biology and two in other lab sciences.

By 2022, the bar will be raised to require at least one credit in biology, one in chemistry and one in physics. That will match Next Generation Science Standards.

“You can go to a school like Crane. … They have the science labs that you want to see across the city. Back of the Yards High School is another. But there are other schools that have science labs that were replicas of what existed during what I call the Sputnik-Apollo era,” Emanuel said.

“We’re trying to build science labs for the Tesla era for our kids. If they’re gonna dream of being doctors or going into the science field — engineering, math, anything in technology — the fundamentals for them to get a hands-on approach are essential.”