When Chicago Public Schools dispatched the first round of special education staff cuts earlier this year, Blair Early Childhood Center was slated to lose six of its 28 special education aides. School leaders were incensed. The school serves around 100 preschoolers who have disabilities. Most of them are in wheelchairs and many are fitted with a feeding device to assist those who have difficulty swallowing.
So staff decided to use a routine fire drill to make a point, asking six aides to stay on the sidelines while the rest of the faculty assisted children in evacuating the building. According to Assistant Principal Suzann Gorham, it was a disaster.
“It took forever to get these kids out of the building,” she says. “The fire lieutenant almost had a heart attack.”
Using the fire drill to bolster its case, Blair appealed the district’s proposed cuts and won. But then Gorham and the school’s principal retired, and later, those six special education aide positions were retired as well. (District officials relay a different version of this story, but the end result—that Blair has six fewer aides on staff—is the same.)
Amid this year’s tight budget climate, one of the most confining in recent years, the district “saved” some $26 million by trimming special education teachers and aides by 900 positions. To be fair, the process by which these positions were eliminated grew out of an effort to distribute resources more equitably. For years, tales abounded of some schools having more or better special education resources than others, and district officials say they intended to put an end to that. In fact, after the dust settled, 64 schools gained staff.
“We did this because it was the right thing to do,” says Gretchen Brumley, who oversees finance in the CPS Office of Specialized Services.
Still, the episode left many educators and special education advocates baffled. Principal Gwendolyn Mims of Southside Occupational, a high school that did not lose any staff and serves only students who require special education services, wonders whether it was necessary for any school to lose staff. “With special education,” she says, “we always need as many eyes as possible.”
The so-called savings doesn’t mean that taxpayers are spending less money overall on special education—the department’s annual budget is up 3 percent—but that they are spending $26 million less than the district had anticipated it would this year. If that is the case, why was it necessary to tap instructional resources for special education to keep a lid on costs? Surely there are other ways to contain expenses that do not dip into classrooms, particularly at a time when student performance is being monitored nationally.
A Catalyst Chicago analysis of special education test scores found that the district has made little progress since the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed. Only 16 percent of special education elementary students passed reading tests in 2005; 18 percent passed in math. (Districtwide 2006 scores for special education were not available at press time, but are expected to show significant gains.) Only 26 elementary schools met or came within striking distance of reading targets.
Meanwhile, a debate continues over whether children with special needs should be assessed and how best to do so. Educators are conflicted about administering grade-level tests; parents worry about how scores will affect their children’s future prospects.
There are no easy answers. But it doesn’t make sense for special education to bear the brunt of the district’s cost containment.
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Sarah Karp has joined the staff of Catalyst Chicago as an associate editor covering high schools, special education and the federal No Child Left Behind law. Previously, she covered children and family issues for six years as an investigative reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Her work has won a number of local and national awards for reporting and magazine writing. Karp earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Karp also has worked with teenagers who are interested in journalism through local programs run by Youth Communications and the City of Chicago’s After School Matters program. Currently, she is working with high school students in a journalism outreach program at the Columbia College School of Journalism.