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Special Ed 'Crisis' Looms for CPS, Union Says, as Board Limits Debate

By Ted Cox | September 29, 2015 10:32am
 McPherson Elementary parent Erin Weinstein waits to address the Board of Education Tuesday.
McPherson Elementary parent Erin Weinstein waits to address the Board of Education Tuesday.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

THE LOOP — Teachers, parents and politicians railed against proposed cuts to special education Tuesday, as the Board of Education abruptly moved to limit public comment at its monthly meeting.

The Chicago Teachers Union questioned the data and reasoning behind announced cuts in Chicago Public Schools special education that have left parents and teachers flummoxed. The union was joined by Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who warned the district was courting a discrimination suit.

Waguespack called the cuts in funding for special-ed students "a recipe for violating their civil rights and indeed the human rights of these children," adding, "They need more assistance, not less."

 CPS security ushers out Zerlina Smith as she complains about being denied an opportunity to address the board.
CPS security ushers out Zerlina Smith as she complains about being denied an opportunity to address the board.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

The debate raged throughout the public-comment period, but was actually curtailed, as the board abruptly instituted a policy insisting that speakers on the same basic topic be lumped together and forced to select a "designated speaker" for the group.

The board already limits the session to 60 speakers at two minutes each, and they have to sign up online the week before the meeting. Some who signed up for the this month's meeting, and initially included among those 60, were denied a chance to speak Tuesday.

In effect, the board limited comments to not two minutes a speaker, but to two minutes a school or issue.

Former 29th Ward aldermanic candidate Zerlina Smith was ushered out by security when she complained about being denied a chance to address the board on Saucedo Scholastic Academy.

Yet Saucedo teacher Sarah Chambers made up for that with a blistering presentation, charging that a former special-ed student of hers now at Social Justice High School in Little Village had been threatened with expulsion just for signing up online to speak to the board.

"The board is committed to vigorous public discussion," CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said. "The board invited members of the public to meet individually with them to discuss their concerns, and the board also created a new section of the website to quickly answer public feedback. At meetings, the board wants to ensure all voices are heard, and will continue to encourage groups to select a spokesperson so that more groups can participate."

The cuts, based on so-called 10th-day budgeting, drawn from attendance on the 10th day of school this year, would eliminate 16.5 teacher positions and 52.5 assistants at a savings of $12 million, CPS officials said.

"Delivering services to Chicago diverse learners is a critical part of CPS’ mission to ensure all of our students have the tools and resources they need to be successful in school," CPS Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool said. "We will work with principals at all our schools to make sure that all issues have been resolved and that every principal has an opportunity to go through the appeals process if they wish."

Markay Winston, head of CPS' Diverse Learners special-ed program, said the district had lost 2,928 special-ed students from last spring to this fall, to a total of 48,927, while districtwide staffing for special ed had risen to a new high of 7,055.

Winston explained the drop in students by saying, "We believe most of them are simply not here as of the 10th day."

Yet Winston presented that with a graph showing the staffing line crossing and rising above the enrollment, somehow suggesting to someone not studying the graph that 7,055 is greater than 48,927.

According to Bittner, most of the special ed students who left the system graduated. CPS figures showed that 877 transferred to other districts.

"I believe we can be more efficient with how we allocate our limited resources," Winston said. She added, however, that any student with an Individualized Education Program would have that plan fulfilled, saying, "It is the law and we intend to comply."

"Because dollars follow students, the adjustments to our Diverse Learner programs reflect the actual enrollment and needs of our students," Bittner said.

Bittner said individual principals will determine how to allocate their special-education resources, and she said CPS is now giving principals until Nov. 2 to appeal the cuts, instead of the previous 24-hour appeal deadline.

Yet the union issued a report Tuesday, "Special Education Services in Crisis at CPS," questioning the data and reasoning behind the cuts.

The union also charged that, in addition to the 69 announced cuts, 161 schools are losing special-education teachers, and 185 schools are losing paraprofessional support.

"These schools will have to cope with the loss of 237 special-education teachers and 337 special-education assistants," according to the union. It accused the CPS officials of painting "a false picture" of cuts to special ed.

Heather Cherone details the cuts and how principals are reacting:

 Ald. Scott Waguespack said CPS was courting a discrimination lawsuit by cutting funds to special ed.
Ald. Scott Waguespack said CPS was courting a discrimination lawsuit by cutting funds to special ed.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

The union compared it to the "blunt metric" data CPS used to justify closing 50 schools two years ago.

Teachers union Vice President Jesse Sharkey accused the board of "penny-ante rip-offs" in defunding special ed, as well as in funding charter schools to the detriment of neighborhood schools.

That was other main issue of the day, as speakers attacked the expansion of charter schools, which they said siphon money from neighborhood schools.

Raychelle Sokolow, of the League of Women Voters, said that group had executed a study showing that funding for charters and neighborhood schools is a zero-sum game, with charters drawing funds away from other schools. She urged a moratorium on new charters.

Jeff Jenkins, a Coonley School parent and member of the Local School Council, cited a resolution backed by 42 members of the City Council calling for a statewide moratorium on new charters this year.

"Stop spending money you don't have and start saying no to charters," he added.

Yet Ariel Johnson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, argued against that blanket approach as "misguided" and insisted charters were providing parents and students with a choice. She said the proposed moratorium "pits politics squarely against the best interests of children."

Several speakers backed a new Noble charter school, while others argued against it on behalf of Kelly High School on the Southwest Side. They figure to be out again Wednesday when CPS holds public hearings on several new charter proposals starting at 4 p.m. at 42 W. Madison St.

Wendy Katten, of the grassroots education group Raise Your Hand, lashed out at the district's "chaotic, disjointed policies" on charters and criticized the board for not joining in lobbying against the Illinois Charter School Commission, which can overrule local boards on charter proposals and force them to fund the schools without local oversight.

Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz admitted, "I don't know" what district policy is on the state charter commission.

Debra Hass said she spent six hours signing up to speak at the meeting and preparing remarks and data showing that 25 high schools, "most of them open-enrollment neighborhood schools," had lost more than 10 percent of their staffing positions this year. Yet Hass was denied a chance to speak because she was lumped in with Katten as a fellow member of Raise Your Hand.

Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson also informed the board of a "vendor error," in which ACT had provided a test to ninth- and 10th-graders that was "old and exposed," in that it had previously been used and was readily available online.

According to Jackson, a $576,000 payment to ACT had been withheld, and the School Quality Rating Policy was being changed to de-emphasize the test as part of a program rating school progress.

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