In a dramatic move, the state of Illinois is stepping in to oversee special education in Chicago Public Schools. This comes after the state found that Chicago schools systemically delayed and denied services to thousands of students. Chicago is the third largest public school system in the country.
Problems began in 2016 when Chicago schools brought in outside consultants to reform its programs. The consultants were from top consulting firms. They hoped to bring down costs while improving services. However, they had no disability experience. Nor did they have a background in special education.
The consultants changed Chicago’s special education policies to limit the authority of IEP teams. Chicago schools use an electronic IEP system—basically, software to help teams write IEPs. The system was changed to require IEP teams to complete very heavy paperwork before offering IEP services.
For example, imagine a child had been evaluated and the IEP team agreed that the child had a . The IEP software still required the team to capture weeks of data before services could be offered to that child. (This violated federal legal guidance that RTI can’t be used to delay or deny special education services.)
The IEP software was also changed to require teams to get approval from a principal or school district representative for certain services. Things like paraprofessionals, transportation and extended year services needed sign-offs. That made it difficult for students to get the help they needed. Other budget and policy changes also led to schools not getting funding for staff and services.
Chicago schools didn’t tell families about the changes that were made. However, families quickly felt the impact. Parents and advocates started noticing cutbacks in services. They also noticed delays in getting kids help.
In October 2017, Chicago’s WBEZ broke the story with a news report on what the school system was doing. This led the Illinois State Board of Education to launch a full investigation.
In its investigation, Illinois found that Chicago schools had violated federal special education law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Kids were not getting the services they had a right to. (You can read all of the investigation’s findings in this PDF.)
The state has ordered Chicago to take corrective action. One important fix: for Chicago schools to empower IEP teams to make decisions at IEP meetings.
Illinois has also appointed a special monitor to oversee the situation. The monitor will have the power to approve almost every aspect of Chicago’s special education policy and budget. The monitor will also observe IEP meetings. And Chicago Public Schools will have to report regularly to the state on how it’s correcting its violations.
Janice Jackson, who was named CEO of Chicago Public Schools after the investigation, acknowledged in a statement that some changes were made too quickly and without enough input from parents and teachers. “Chicago Public Schools will not make that mistake again,” she added.
Chicago is not the only school system where this has happened. Early this year, the federal government confirmed that Texas had denied special education services to thousands of students.
“It’s deeply troubling to see these problems in more than one school system,” says Lindsay Jones, vice president and chief policy and advocacy officer for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). However, she says, it’s good to see states trying to correct the issues. “IEP decisions must be based on an individual’s needs, not on cutting a school district’s costs.” (NCLD is Understood’s managing founding partner.)
Explore our guide to navigating IEP meetings. Download our parent advocacy toolkit to make changes in your child’s school. And read about state complaints, a way to bring violations of special education law to your state’s attention.
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About the author
Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.