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Friday, July 29, 2016

Chicago Public Schools Special Education Programs Failing Despite Higher Costs

Chicago Public Schools is preparing to overhaul its special education programs, citing persistently low test scores for disabled students, insufficient oversight and a lack consistent standards even as costs have grown.
informative article by Juan Perez Jr. for the Chicago Tribune | July 26,2016
Among several issues outlined in a 14-page report, African-American and Hispanic boys are far more likely than white counterparts to be identified as candidates for special education. "There may be legitimate reasons for these occurrences, but the numbers certainly raise questions of potential racial bias or incorrect diagnoses," the report says.

"These conditions and outcomes are disappointing and unacceptable," says the CPS report, which was prepared with the help of consultants. "We must find a better way to effectively and efficiently diagnose and support students with disabilities and to ensure that they achieve."

The district's acknowledgment that the achievement gap between special education students and other students "remains stubbornly wide" was welcomed by Rodney Estvan of the Access Living disability rights organization, even as he noted the potential pitfalls facing efforts to change the highly regulated special education system.

Estvan said the high rate of male minority special education students reflects national trends. "This is not news and it's unlikely CPS will be able to do anything about this," Estvan said in an email.

Estvan said he is concerned that attempts to address the problem will result in simply decreasing the number of students identified as needing special education.

"CPS has a right to attempt to contain its special education costs, but for those of us in the disability advocacy community, the federal requirement that students with disabilities be proactively sought out and identified is very critical," Estvan said.

CPS special education report (pdf)

The report cites "few standards or procedures" to guide special education referral, evaluation and eligibility decisions, and concludes that the central office has insufficient resources to monitor that work.

School counselors are often forced to neglect normal duties to manage special education cases, CPS said, while limited technology makes it difficult to monitor compliance with legally mandated special education plans and assess how students are performing.

The district says it will hire about 30 supervisors to help train and consult with school-based staff.

"We're grappling with a national issue here, it's not just Chicago," said Patrick Baccellieri, who was recently appointed to lead special education at CPS.

"This isn't about savings," Baccellieri said. "It's not about how much are we saving. The real work is to get better instructional goals, better instruction happening, and focused supports on the needs of kids."

Baccellieri's deputy, Elizabeth Keenan, said the district doesn't "anticipate what's going to happen with the number of students in special needs being identified."

"We want to just kind of level the playing field and try figure out what's going to happen," she said.

The percentage of students with individualized education programs at CPS has trailed statewide averages in recent years. The Illinois State Board of Education has told the federal government that the state has policies to "prevent the inappropriate overidentification or disproportionate representation" of special education students based on race or ethnicity.

A district spokeswoman said the state board hasn't identified CPS as having disproportionate enrollment in its special education programs. Such a finding would prompt costly sanctions.

Despite dwindling overall enrollment, the report says the number of students needing special education plans grew to slightly more than 52,000 last year, compared with just more than 49,000 in the 2009-10 school year. In addition, the number of students with accommodations for physical or mental impairments grew to nearly 13,000 by last fall, up from about 5,200 six years earlier, as federal law expanded the pool of students eligible for those services.

The CPS report says boys comprise two-thirds of students with disabilities. Roughly 1 in 5 male African-American and Hispanic students, the report says, is identified as needing specialized instruction or related services.

The district spent $900 million on special education in 2015, up from $791 million in 2010, according to the report. The district said the rising layout has yielded little return.

"Today, CPS spends more money on average for students with disabilities than at any time during the previous five years despite realizing few broad improvements in student achievement or other outcomes," the report says.

"Looking ahead," the report says, "We recognize that an unprecedented and highly coordinated set of actions at the District, network, and school levels is needed to close the achievement gap and meet the needs of students with disabilities."

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