Chicago has come a long way in recent years in providing an appropriate education for children with disabilities and is doing a better job than many big cities, according to the country’s top special education official.

Thomas Hehir, who directs the special education office of the U.S. Department of Education, knows Chicago well from his three-year stint (1990-1993) as special education chief for the Chicago Public Schools. He says that when he came to Chicago he was “appalled” at the level of forced segregation of children with disabilities.

“There were virtually no inclusive opportunities in the system for kids with more significant disabilities,” he says. “There were also many more kids in separate schools, especially private schools, than there are today. There are options now that weren’t there before.”

“Last time we were in Chicago, three years ago, Chicago’s procedural act, getting things done with appropriate procedures, was in better shape than in a lot of big cities we had been in,” he says. “I also found it heartening in Chicago that a reform orientation existed there.”

Hehir hands a good deal of credit to local school councils, many of which have special ed parents as members, and to reform groups such as Designs for Change for pushing inclusion. “It wasn’t a groundswell, but there was a sincere attempt on the part of many people in the city to address the issue.”

Hehir says that while his federal office has had “some significant concerns with the State of Illinois,” Illinois is not alone in mishandling of placement for special education students.

“Illinois in some respects was actually ahead of the game by having a comprehensive special education law before there was a federal law,” he notes. “But that stated, the courts have maintained an active role in this area because we’ve yet to reach a point where all children with disabilities get the type of education they need to be successful.”

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