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Illinois Imposes Sweeping Control Over Chicago's Special Education Program

May 17, 2018
Originally published on May 17, 2018 6:31 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The state of Illinois is taking control of Chicago Public Schools' special education program. An investigation found that the school district violated federal law two years ago when it overhauled its program for children with disabilities. This all happened as a result of investigative reporting by Chicago member station WBEZ. And education reporter Sarah Karp joins us now from the station. Hi there.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: Hi, how you doing?

SHAPIRO: Good. Tell us what you found in your initial investigation when you walked into Chicago Public Schools' special education.

KARP: So what happened was that at a lot of Chicago Board of Education meetings parents were showing up time and again and complaining about their kids having services and then those services being cut. So they were saying, like, suddenly my kid wasn't getting transportation to school or suddenly the aide that my child had for a long time was being cut. And what I was able to find out is that the school district had hired auditors, outside auditors who were politically connected, who helped write a whole new set of policy and procedures.

SHAPIRO: And these were people without a lot of expertise in special education.

KARP: With no expertise in special education, as far as I can tell. And they wrote these policies. And at the same time, Chicago Public Schools said, we're not cutting the budget of special education. But I was able to find that they in fact did cut the budget of special education. And, you know, a lot of these policies and procedures eventually led to kids not getting services that they needed and a lot of times had.

SHAPIRO: So parents are seeing their kids no longer getting transportation, no longer getting assistance in the classroom. What did this mean for the kids with autism, with Down syndrome, with other kinds of disabilities who were in special education programs?

KARP: Well, I can tell you that a lot of parents were just worried about their kids. You know, some of these are just safety issues. Like, one mother of a second-grader whose son tends to bolt out of the school, that child did not have an aide. And the school is right on a busy street.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

KARP: And she was just terrified that her son was going to, you know, leave the school and run into the street. And actually, there was an instance where a child did get out of her school and went to a parking lot and was found in the parking lot of a Home Depot.

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

KARP: Right. So there's safety issues. But then there are just other issues where kids that had support, whether it was speech therapy or occupational therapy, their minutes were being scaled back. And so their parents were saying, well, they're just not seeing the progress that they had been seeing. They're - you know, they're not moving along.

SHAPIRO: So your report came out last year, and that prompted the state to take the unusual step of doing an investigation. What did that investigation conclude?

KARP: It concluded that these policies and procedures did provide roadblocks to kids getting the services that they needed and deserved, and that that was a violation of several federal laws. And the main big law is the law that requires school districts to provide free and appropriate education to all children, including children with disabilities.

SHAPIRO: So now the state has imposed a special monitor on Chicago Public Schools' special education program. This has to be a big blow to the independence of the third-largest public school system in the country. How are city leaders responding?

KARP: Well, this is a big blow because this monitor is not just overseeing. This monitor will have to sign off on almost every aspect of special education - every policy, every budget plan. At first, officials did not want this. They argued very vehemently that they didn't need it, that they were going to make their changes themselves. But now that it was going to happen they said, OK, we'll accept it, and we want to right the wrongs that were done. So now they're going to just have to deal with it, I guess.

SHAPIRO: And after hearing so much pain and concern from parents over the last year, what are you hearing now?

KARP: Well, the parents are relieved. I want to play the tape of a woman named Mary Hughes. She has a child with autism. And this is what she said.

MARY HUGHES: It was very validating to hear an elected body take all of our stories and do something about them.

KARP: So as you can hear, she's very happy that people listened. Now, a lot of people are sort of - they have a lot of skepticism that things will really change because they've been sort of burned by this whole process. But they're hopeful.

SHAPIRO: That's education reporter Sarah Karp of member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks for joining us today.

KARP: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.