In justifying new cuts to special education, the head of the CPS Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services, Markay Winston, told the Board of Education that there are nearly 3,000 fewer students with special needs at district-run schools this year, compared to the end of school last year.

That would be a significant drop of more than 6 percent – and represent about half of the entire enrollment decline at district-run schools since last year. When asked about the drop by a board member, Winston could not say for certain whether students have “transitioned out” of special education or left the district altogether.

“We believe most of them are simply not here anymore,” she said during Tuesday’s board meeting.

But Winston ignored one critical fact. According to CPS’s own reports, district staff typically identify, during the course of a year, about 3,000 new students who need special services. That means the number of so-called “diverse learners” typically rises by about 3,000 by the end of the school year.

“They trot out numbers like this to give the sense that the district is losing students, and having a decline in the need for services … when their own reports shows that special education enrollment jumps up about 6 percent on average during the school year,” says Pavlyn Jankov, a researcher at the Chicago Teachers Union. “It’s completely part of their framing to justify cuts, but this is just a blatant lie.”

CPS officials said they wanted to clear up “misconceptions” about cuts to special education during Tuesday’s board meeting. But the opposite happened as parents, teachers and others repeatedly questioned the cash-strapped district’s ability to meet legal requirements for its most vulnerable students and railed against a new round of cuts unexpectedly announced last week.

Citing enrollment declines, CPS officials announced on Friday that a total of 69 special education teacher and aide positions would be cut from district-run schools. (The reducations were part of broader cuts at district-run schools that did not meet 10th-day enrollment projections.) Officials released school-by-school enrollments but did not break out diverse learners or explain how special education cuts were identified, except to say students’ individualized education plans (IEPs) were somehow taken into account.

Cuts to special education after the school year begins are unprecedented, says Rod Estvan of the advocacy group Access Living.

“This has never really happened before. Special education cuts have come during the budgetary process,” says Estvan, adding that the need for special education teachers grows throughout the year as students are properly identified.

Later, when asked about services for students who are identified as needing special services after the start of the school year, a CPS spokeswoman said the district “cannot provide budgets to schools based on students who might later have IEPs. We will make any needed adjustments as they arise over the course of the year, and we will continue our normal practice of enrolling students in the program as needed.”

Principals said they were blindsided by Friday’s cuts, as WBEZ has reported. 

In a panic, many school officials and parents reached out over the weekend to Winston’s office, other administrators and elected officials. On Sunday Winston wrote a letter to principals, giving them the option to appeal the cuts by Tuesday if they believed “that additional support is required.” She also suggested they dip into other school funds to meet special education needs.

But as the chorus of complaints grew louder on Monday, the district backtracked on the short timeline and extended the appeals deadline until early November. Now, district officials say no layoffs will take place until after that appeals process is over — and that CPS officials will visit every school to review special education needs and positions.

Possible lawsuits

Friday’s announcement came as schools were still reeling from $42 million in special education cuts announced earlier this summer.

Cielo Muñoz, a special education teacher at Penn Elementary, described how the school security guard is now pitching in to change diapers. “Students are not getting the services they need,” she said after the board meeting.

CPS officials have assured they will continue to provide students with legally mandated services.

They have said an internal 18-month review of services shows that the district has been going above and beyond state requirements for special education services for years. Despite repeated records requests, they have never produced any report from that review.

Ald. Scott Waguespack of the 32nd Ward warned the Board on Tuesday to prepare for possible lawsuits for not meeting students’ IEP requirements. In response, CEO Forrest Claypool called special education “sacrosanct” and asked the North Side alderman to personally bring forward any cases of students whose IEPs aren’t being met.

“Unlike other areas of education, where you can make arguments about whether this is enough or not enough, this is objective because each child has an IEP that the law requires be met, as well as best practices,” Claypool said. “If there’s any instance in which a parent or someone at a school goes back and reviews and says ‘I’m not getting the resources in my plan,’ we want to know that. And we’re going to address that, and we will fix it.”

But many activists and parents worry about students’ IEPs will get reduced throughout the school year, meaning fewer services will become legally required. In particular, they worry that parents who aren’t politically connected or have little knowledge of how the process works will unwittingly agree to IEP modifications.

“That’s going to happen,” says Matthew Johnson, a parent of a student with special needs at Dewey Academy, who often helps other parents understand the IEP process.

Friday’s announcement of “budgetary adjustments” at district-run schools indicates Dewey, on the South Side, will lose a special education teacher.

“It was hell with what we had before, and now it’s only going to get worse,” he says.

Johnson says that students with special needs in 6th through 8th grades are taught in the same classroom – which can be problematic because of the range of their disabilities. “Some have learning disabilities, some have behavioral disabilities,” he says.

Chaos at schools

On Tuesday the CTU released a report detailing how the loss of special education teachers and paraprofessionals at schools has made it “impossible to meet critical accommodations for students.” The union is calling for an audit of special education services.

Not all schools lost special education positions, according to the CPS data released on Friday. (The data do not include charter schools or specialty schools, and district officials say that information won’t come out until after Oct. 5, when the 20th-day count takes place.)

Philip Cantor is a science teacher and LSC member at North-Grand High School, which is part of All Means All, a pilot program at CPS that uses the student-based budgeting model for special education. Other schools’ special education positions are based on enrollment and IEP needs but paid for by the district, not out of school budgets.

The dollars that CPS gave the school under All Means All weren’t enough to pay for North-Grand’s 13 special education positions, so administrators had to cut four of them, Cantor said. One of the teachers who lost her job was trained to teach physics to special education students; now another teacher has to get trained in that specialty.

Tenth-day enrollment was above projections, and now the school can afford to hire more special education positions, Cantor told the board. But it won’t happen at the snap of a finger, he says. It’ll take time to recruit and hire a teacher and reschedule students.

“They’ve created chaos, rearranging kids, hiring people,” he says. “We’re getting some positions back but the damage has been done… Our administration is scrambling now.”


Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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