Parents protest cuts to special education

Parents protest cuts to special education. Photo by Ted Cox, DNAinfo

Just days after schools found out about another outrageous round of cuts to their special education staff, the district’s Office of Diverse Leaners and Support Services (ODLSS) offered a defensive presentation to the Board of Education filled with even more distortions. District Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson prefaced their presentation, stating that misrepresentations were circulating about special education, that the district would explain how the layoffs were decided, and repeated their assertion that the district was committed to meeting all legally required services in students’ IEPs.

Yet what followed was a presentation by Chief of ODLSS Markay Winston, that gave more broad rhetoric about the district’s goals around special education, offered no specifics about how the layoffs were determined, no specific data about current or past special education service delivery that would justify them, and more misleading stats. Winston justified their actions, reading to the Board from a statement also shared with principals:

“For years, we have seen an increase in staffing levels, a decrease in enrollment and yet no change in outcomes – and as a result, we must improve the way we deliver services… We are also aligning our staffing levels to better comply with ISBE’s guidelines.”

The presentation included several slides that falsified the picture of special education trends. One slide included just a single statistic centered in bold print: 2,928 fewer students. This was reported as the drop in enrollment at the tenth day since the end of last school year, and came after several slides depicting special education student and staffing trends in district schools.

Catalyst-Chicago explained how Winston twisted the implications of this stat:

When asked about the drop by a board member, Winston could not say for certain whether students have “transitioned out” of special education or left the district altogether. “We believe most of them are simply not here anymore,” she said during Tuesday’s board meeting. But Winston ignored one critical fact. According to CPS’s own reports, district staff typically identify, during the course of a year, about 3,000 new students who need special services. That means the number of so-called “diverse learners” typically rises by about 3,000 by the end of the school year.

With an average six percent increase of students with IEPs over the school year at district schools, CPS needs to be funding special education services above and beyond current needs, so that schools do not have to scramble to fill positions as more necessary special education services are identified. Yet this year, CPS has passed a budget that staffs the district at barely legal minimum levels, and as reported widely, in many schools the low staffing is leading to clearly illegal violations of special education rules and of students’ IEP needs.

Winston also claimed that the district has too many paraprofessional aides relative to teachers, and explained that the district’s careful “right-sizing”, and All Means All initiatives were ways for the district to move more in line with national trends towards increasing inclusion and getting students more time with special education teachers. Yet data from this year’s budget cuts show that principals given autonomy over their special education budgets in the All Means All initiative are laying off teachers at a rate nine times as great as district schools in the traditional funding system. This isn’t because principals necessarily want to target special education teachers, and certainly isn’t because they think doing so prioritizes student achievement. They are simply being forced by the district’s budget to make indiscriminate cuts to save money, and teachers are more expensive than paraprofessionals.

But CPS’ district-wide cuts to special education are even more indiscriminate. Special education aides have been cut most deeply, with hundreds cut in July, amounting to a loss of nearly 11 percent of all paraprofessional aides. Although the district claims to have gone through a rigorous process that showed they were over-serving special needs students, they have failed to provide any data. Laurie Hasbrook, parent of a special child at Jackie Vaughn Occupational High School provided this testimony to the Board:

When asked about the massive cuts to special education – not only at Jackie Vaughn, but throughout CPS – officials have claimed they stem from a review by the Office of Divesre Learner Supports and Services. I requested a copy. This is the response I received from Dr. Markway Winston:

“It sounds as though you are looking for some sort of report or written product that captures information regarding Vaughn or other schools within the district. Unfortunately, the review that you have referenced does not include a written report. As used by me and my staff, this review has referred to a process by which we looked at our schools over a period of time to determine student enrollment and staffing needs.”

Principals have opposed the additional budget cuts, and have challenged the district’s rhetoric about “right-sizing” special education. WBEZ reported about their opposition:

But [principals James] Gray and [Nathan] Pietrini both said the changes are more numbers-focused than they are student-focused. 

“Special education is so much more complicated than everything else,” Pietrini said. “Special education staffing can’t be reduced to a formula. It can’t be you’ve got this many kids, or that many minutes, so you get this many teachers.”

The public advocacy and agitation of parents, teachers, students, and principals has forced CPS to re-consider some of their cuts, extending an appeals process and delaying further layoffs to special education staff until November 2nd. Yet the district remains committed to balancing the budget on special education, even as they prepare to go forward with over $200 million in payments to various financial institutions over toxic swap deals. The Chicago Teachers Union is demanding that the Board prioritize students over banks, walk back their cuts to special education, and conduct an audit of special education to document where the district is failing to accommodate and serve students’ special education needs.

Read more about the impact of special education budget cuts in the CTU’s new report “Special Education in Crisis at CPS”