Parents, teachers call CPS special education budget an ‘atrocity’

By Meredith Francis and Emily Olsen

After several public hearings, two budget drafts and a threatened teachers strike, some parents and teachers say the Chicago Public Schools budget still fails to protect the safety and well-being of special education students.

“Students who need one-on-one assistance for feeding and changing, and extreme behavior problems have no one,” said Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Saucedo Academy in Little Village. “My school has students with seizures and only has one nurse two days a week.”

Special education funding dominated a pair of budget hearings Monday on the district’s amended budget. The operating budget is now up to $5.5 billion thanks to an infusion of cash from $55 million in tax increment financing. Most of the additional money  is earmarked for teacher pay raises, a sore spot that almost led to a strike in October.

But some special education teachers and parents say changes to how special education money is distributed means their funding is no longer transparent and accused CPS officials of actually underfunding those programs. The confusion arose when general education and special education money was lumped together, which some argue pits general and special education students against one another.

Some teachers also say they’re being overworked, as roughly 14 percent of CPS students require an individual education plan (IEP), a document crafted with teachers, parents and administrators that caters to specific educational needs by outlining classroom goals.

Christopher Egan, a 30-year special education teacher at Saucedo Academy, said he works on a temporary basis “even though there are hundreds of vacancies” across the district.

“I do more than a full load,” Egan said. “In fact, everyone in our special ed department is overwhelmed by our workload.”

Chambers said one of the reasons special ed teachers are so overworked is that in a city plagued by violence, a shortage of support staff like social workers leaves many students suffering from trauma in need. Both Chambers and Egan said the amount of paperwork required to apply for extra special education resources is burdensome.

But officials argue the district has made reforms this year to ensure special education students get their fair share, like requiring principals to pay for IEPs before general education.

“Every school funds special education first and schedules it first,” said CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. “Every IEP is fully funded before a single dollar goes into general education.”

Claypool and board President Frank Clark urged teachers to report any special education students who they feel aren’t being fairly served by the district.

“If you’ve got a case or cases that you can give us names or specific areas where someone is not being funded appropriately, that’s what you need to do and we’ll address it immediately,” Clark said. “You don’t believe what you’re hearing, I accept that. That doesn’t mean that you’re right.”

But teachers and parents pushed back, saying they understand what they’re seeing on the ground in their schools.

“I think special education funding is the biggest atrocity this year by far,” Chambers said. She says the district needs to tap into more TIF money and tax financial transactions to fill the gap.

Chambers insists students aren’t getting the basics, and that could mean trouble.

“They’re going to have a massive lawsuit,” Chambers said.

Parents and teachers wait to speak before the Chicago Board of Education on Monday night. (Emily Olsen / MEDILL)