CPS, Board of Education under fire for special education cuts


Santiago Covarrubias

Many attended the Board of Education meeting held at CPS Loop Office to support special education following recent budget cuts.


Concerned parents, teachers and students gathered at Chicago Public School’s Loop Office, 42 W. Madison St., to advocate for special education funding at the Board of Education’s Sept. 29 meeting.

CPS sent an email to school principals Sept. 25 stating there would be budget adjustments to special education programs based on attendance, and that principals who wanted to appeal had until Sept. 29 to do so. That deadline was  extended to Nov. 2 in another email sent by CPS one day before the original deadline.

Alderman Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) said the emails caused a lot of stress to the people involved.

“I would almost expect a public apology [from CPS] for taking that approach, but we will never get it,” Waguespack said.

At the meeting, the CPS commitment, read by Markay Winston, head of the CPS Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services said, “Every child with an IEP  [individual education program] in Chicago Public Schools will receive all of                      their service.”

Winston said, “we have not eliminated  any services for students based on their IEPs.”

Sarah Chambers, a CPS special education teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy said the CPS commitment is “a complete lie.”

She said the school she teaches at has been short by one special education teacher for a month and because of this, students’ needs are not being met.

CPS provided data at the meeting stating that 5 percent of students never exit special education. In addition, approximately one in seven special education students are reading at their grade level or higher, and only one in five special education students is proficient or better in math.

“These results are not pretty and they indicate, in spite of all the great efforts directed toward their success, our diverse learners are not making the kinds of educational progress we would expect,”

Winston said.

However, Waguespack said these numbers are incorrect because CPS could not account for about 3,000 students. 

“I have a problem with the way the mayor operates, his appointed board and the people that staff it—you never really know  what the details are,” Waguespack said.

Waguespack said CEO Forrest Claypool of the board suggested he go into classrooms and look for IEP students, which violates privacy laws.

“It was bizarre sitting there and hearing that CPS CEO tell me to go look for the IEPs,” Waguespack said. “That further shows even from his high level as CEO, he is unsure what those numbers are.”

Winston’s presentation at the meeting showed the budget for special education support and services to be about $826 million for the 71,000 students in special education program across the district.

Waguespack said he was at local schools on the first day of the school year, and it was apparent special education resources were lacking.

“Bottom line is you can’t use the money for something else, you can’t fiddle with the words or the money and manipulate the numbers,” Waguespack said at the meeting.

CPS made agreements—referred to by opponents as toxic swaps—with the banks for low interest rates, but the rates were flexible and jumped, so CPS now owes on them, according to Waguespack. “The banks knew these things were essentially going to put municipalities on the opposite side of a good deal,” Waguespack said.

Many at the Board of Education meeting accused CPS of making cuts from special education to pay off the debts from these “toxic swaps.” The Chicago Teachers Union made the same charge on fliers that members distributed at the meeting.

The charge of linking cuts to interest payments “makes sense because that’s the amount they have to pay back,” Waguespack said. “You know they have to find a way to make cuts.” 

Chambers had the opportunity to speak before the board at the meeting, but said her student Lileaha Diaz, a junior special  education student at Little Village Lawndale High School Campus who planned to attend the meeting, was told she could not.

“Imagine telling a student with a disability she cannot advocate for special education, for her right to her services,” Chambers said at the meeting.

Elisia Ramirez, Diaz’s mother, claimed that after the school heard her daughter planned to speak at the Board of Education meeting, the principal called her down to the office and threatened to expel her if she did attend the event.

 However, Kathy Farr, principal of Little Village Lawndale High School Campus, also known as Social Justice High School, said this is not true.

“I’ve never spoken to anyone about anything like that,” Farr said. “I wouldn’t even tell a child they are going to be expelled. I don’t make that call.”

Ramirez claimed that Farr contacted her and told her she did not think her daughter should attend the meeting because it was an adult matter.

“I’ve never told a student they would be expelled for going to the board,” Farr said. “We encourage [the] student voice in our school, that’s why we’re [known as] ‘social justice.’ That would never happen here.” 

Ramirez said she went to the meeting to advocate for her daughter because she did not want her getting suspended. 

“She is the principal of the school,” Ramirez said. “What am I supposed to say? Maybe she is right—maybe it was an adult situation, but if a child wanted to speak out about what’s right, I feel like it’s okay.”

Ramirez said her daughter’s grades have suffered, falling to Cs and Ds since the resources available to special education students have decreased.

“If they cut [special education] I don’t think she will make it,” Ramirez said.

Instead, Chambers read what Diaz planned to say at the Board of Education meeting: “Look at all the awards I have won in school because special education made me successful. I struggled, but I learned. I would have dropped out without special education. Please don’t cut our special education teachers, our teachers are like family. Please save special education.”

Waguespack said he is working with concerned parents and helping them evaluate the next possible legal steps.

“I can’t do much because I have no power over the board,” Waguespack said. “That’s why we need an elected school board —it’s pretty clear the people making decisions are not being held accountable.”