After Julie Rodriguez enrolled her 10-year-old autistic son at a public school on Chicago’s Southwest Side last year, she found herself navigating a maze of paperwork that she said seemed designed to prevent her son from getting the special education services he needed.
Rodriguez had just moved to the city from the suburbs, and she brought with her a legally binding special education plan for her son from his suburban public school. She also had a thick binder detailing his behavioral and academic problems, including a detailed analysis from some of the most highly respected doctors in Chicago.
In addition to autism, he suffers from attention deficit disorder, speech delays, and oppositional behavior disorder.
But it took six disastrous weeks for Chicago Public Schools and the staff at Peck Elementary to determine what she already knew — that her son needed an aide by his side all the time and a laundry list of other services.
“The security guards were calling me every day,” Rodriguez said of that six-week period. “They have a police officer on staff — that person was calling me. … Everybody had all these complaints. And I am like, ‘He needs all of these other services that he is not getting.’”
Little did she know that she came to Chicago just as the school system was attempting a major overhaul of its special education program, which serves more than 52,000 students and consumes about $900 million of CPS’ $5.7 billion operating budget each year.
A WBEZ investigation into that 2016 overhaul found officials relied on a set of guidelines — developed behind closed doors and initially kept secret — that resulted in limiting services for special education students, services like busing, one-on-one aides, and summer school. This overhaul was orchestrated by outside auditors with deep ties to CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. They had no expertise in special education.
In addition to interviews with parents of special-needs children, WBEZ analyzed school financial records and discovered a pattern where students did not receive services last year that they had previously counted on, raising questions about whether the rules violated federal laws aimed at protecting special-needs children. For example, the time children spent with specialists dropped by about 12 percent last year, WBEZ found.
At the same time CPS revamped special education services, it also changed the way it funded the program, making it impossible for even the most veteran expert to figure out where the school district was cutting back and by how much.
Back then, Claypool insisted he was not cutting special education, but now officials admit they budgeted substantially less and spent less.
Elizabeth Keenan, the recently installed head of special education for CPS, said the changes were about making sure students got the right help. In the past, services were given out without attention to whether they were working, she said.
“We want to make sure we are creating equitable outcomes and that students, when they are in special ed, continue to see academic growth,” she said.
But CPS’ new rules made it even harder to get children what they needed in a system that has long failed to properly support special-needs students, said Matt Cohen, a lawyer who specializes in special education and has worked in the field for more than 30 years.
“The overall effect is really to wear parents down in every way that they can, and wear the staff down in every way that they can, so that the ultimate outcome is giving less,” Cohen said. “It is equivalent to the old fable about a death by 1,000 lashes. This is a death by 1,000 slow cuts.”
A budget crisis and an internal report
For a school district that seems perennially in a budget crisis, CPS was in an especially dire financial position in the summer of 2016. It could only make payroll and pay for teacher pensions by taking out expensive loans. And officials could only claim the budget was balanced when they included state money that was not guaranteed.
There was an urgent need to cut expenses. And special education costs were rising.
But federal law mandates a “free appropriate” education for disabled children, and school districts cannot justify denying services by saying it can’t afford them.
Claypool and Pat Baccellieri, the director of special education at the time, insisted that special education needed fixing, not because they needed to save money but because the performance of special-needs students lagged behind other students.
In an internal CPS report released in July 2016, school officials made the case that too many students were identified as having special needs, especially black and Latino boys. They also said service delivery was inefficient and unevenly applied across schools, and the report suggested that CPS had a higher staff-to-student ratio than other school districts.
This was problematic, the report stated, because all these extra resources were not leading to better academic outcomes for special education students.
Longtime advocate Rod Estvan said officials were correct about the stagnant, troubling achievement gap between special education students and their peers, but he noted that about half of special education students have learning disabilities, which can make it difficult for them to perform on standardized tests.
Estvan works for Chicago’s premier disability rights group, Access Living, and spent six years monitoring CPS’ special education as part of a federal consent decree that has since been lifted. He said he is outraged that CPS’ solution was to withdraw resources.
Many of the report’s contentions — and hence the justification for the overhaul — are just plain wrong, including that CPS has too many students in special education and is spending too much on staff, he charged.
To counter the argument that CPS puts too many students in special education, he said that CPS’ percentage of special education students mirrors the national average of 13 percent. And Chicago’s average is less than many big city school districts, including New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, according to 2014 to 2015 data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Additionally, CPS’ report claimed that the school district is over-identifying black and Latino males for special education in particular. But a Better Government Association analysis this year disputed that claim. While those students make up 43 percent of the student body, they account for only 38 percent of students in special education, the BGA found. White males make up only 5 percent of the student body but account for 15 percent of special needs students.
And then there is the cost question. Although CPS’ special education costs went up between 2014 and 2016, CPS was spending right at the state average, according to an annual expenditure analysis by the Illinois State Board of Education. Sixteen school districts spend $10,000 more per special education student than CPS.
Estvan said he understands that a non-educator like Claypool might be puzzled that so much money goes to a relatively small group of children. But Estvan argued it is not that special education students in Chicago get too much; it is that they get too little.
“Special education is not designed to be a permanent status, but in CPS it becomes a permanent status,” he said. “Why does it become a permanent status? Because the services are so underwhelming that they cannot provide the additional help you need to get over the hump.”
Bring in the auditors
Before the release of the report on special education, CPS quietly paid auditors from some of the biggest names in consulting — Crowe Horwath, PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG — to analyze special education data and work with its special education department to come up with changes, according to a WBEZ analysis of nearly 1,600 pages of invoices and contracts.
The auditors worked under what’s called “professional service” contracts, a notoriously vague type of contract that requires no public input. These contracts essentially put businesses in a rolodex that CPS can tap for a broad range of work that isn’t publically disclosed.
In several billing documents reviewed by WBEZ, Crowe Horwath made clear it was deeply involved in crafting the rules and documentation needed for a child to receive special education services — things like busing or an aide to accompany students during the school day.
In one document, for example, it cited this central task: “Developed and documented protocols around eight key aspects in a student’s IEP (individualized education plan).” These consultants billed CPS as much as $350 an hour.
These big professional service contracts began under Claypool, who took over CPS in the summer of 2015, and have grown exponentially under his administration. Many of these contractors have long-standing professional ties to Claypool and his team. Altogether, these three firms have been paid more than $14 million under these deals since October of 2015.
Denise Little, a senior advisor to Claypool, downplayed the role of the consultants. Little said she and other CPS officials wrote the protocols and that the consultants essentially edited them.
Claypool defended the use of the auditors. He said special education was suffering because no one was carefully tracking services and checking whether “best practices” were followed.
“(The auditors) are experts in data and they are experts in IT systems and they are experts in process improvement,” he told WBEZ. “That is their expertise. They have decades of success at top levels of management consulting firms, and that is what was required.”
Keenan, CPS’ current head of special education, noted that other school districts have similar manuals.
Changes to special education funding and services
After the new guidelines were created with help from outside auditors, CPS officials turned their attention to the pot of money used to fund special education.
At the start of last school year, CPS budgeted about $29 million less than the year before at its more than 500 district-run schools, a WBEZ analysis of CPS data found. CPS officials said they ultimately spent at least $15 million more than budgeted, but they could not provide a full explanation of where that money went. CPS’ special education enrollment dropped by about 1 percent, but not nearly enough to explain the major dip in funding.
At CPS’ charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, the district spent about $5 million more last year for special needs students. Those schools saw a slight uptick in special education enrollment. Cutting special education in charter schools is more difficult than in district-run schools because charter contracts spell out how they are reimbursed for expenses.
The cutbacks at CPS’ district-run schools meant there were 350 fewer special education teachers and 76 fewer aides in the spring of 2017 compared to the year before, according to WBEZ’s analysis of CPS data.
As CPS began cutting its special education budget, children got less time with specialists, such as occupational therapists and psychologists. The time with these clinicians decreased by about 12 percent on average over the course of last year.
Time with psychologists dropped the most by nearly 30 percent, while time with social workers and physical therapists dropped by about 13 percent.
The number of clinicians also dropped. Though CPS employee records show almost no change in budgeted positions in September, there were 100 clinician vacancies by March.
And the number of special-needs children who got an extended school year — extra class time, usually in the summer — dropped by 56 percent last year, from 7,084 to 3,176.
In an interview with WBEZ, CPS officials involved with the special education overhaul said if students were denied services, it was because they didn’t qualify under the new criteria.
Yolanda Williams’ daughter was one of thousands of students affected. She has Down syndrome and had qualified for occupational therapy for years, Williams said. But last year the staff at Penn Elementary in North Lawndale suddenly stopped providing it to her, she said.
Williams’ daughter sees an occupational therapist outside of school at the University of Illinois-Chicago. That therapist says the girl still needs the extra help at school, Williams said.
“I am trying to understand what happened and why?” she said.
The UIC therapist is teaching her daughter life skills such as brushing her teeth and tying her shoes, Williams said. But she said her daughter’s handwriting is virtually unreadable and she doesn’t know how to read, which are skills an in-school occupational therapist could work on.
Parents begin to notice
Katherine Gladson, a legal aid attorney with expertise in special education, has worked for years helping parents advocate for their children at various Chicago public schools.
She said in previous years, children who needed special education services would go through an evaluation, and then an agreement would be made between the teacher, school clinicians, and a parent.
But under the rules in the new special education manual, that agreement is now only the first step. Next comes reams of documentation and outside approvals.
“It was the most frustrating thing,” Gladson said of her experiences last year. She said in this new process, parents and staff who know the child best don’t have as much power as they once had.
Not only is the process frustrating, it’s also potentially a violation of federal laws designed to ensure special education students get the services they need in a timely fashion, she said.
“That is where we fall into the cycle of delays and potential inappropriate denial of services,” she said.
When Rodriguez enrolled her son at Peck Elementary last fall, she had no idea new special education guidelines existed.
But Rodriguez and her son dealt with its effects. WBEZ is not using her son’s name to protect his privacy.
Before coming to CPS last fall, she took her son out of school for a week for an in-depth evaluation at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Lurie psychiatrists said Rodriguez’s son needed a highly specialized school. Absent that, he should have an adult by his side, helping him calm down and focus, Rodriguez said they recommended.
Rodriguez said the special education teacher at Peck agreed that her son’s behavior was “at another level.”
But to get him an aide, the teacher had to spend weeks last fall documenting his every move in 15 minute increments and explaining why that behavior required the attention of an aide.
During that time, Rodriguez said her son mostly sat idle. Fourth grade essentially started without him.
Eventually, CPS approved a shared aide that would also help other students. But in practice, the school allowed the aide to stay by his side nearly all the time. She was thrilled but also worried about the school’s unwillingness to put the full-time aide in her son’s legally binding education plan. She said the experience has made her suspicious of CPS.
“They want a way of just pulling it from him,” Rodriguez said. “Just having control over if he is going to have it one day and not the other day.”
Just as Rodriguez was trying to get her son an aide, lawyers and advocates in Chicago got wind that the secret new rules existed. Amy Zimmerman, director of the Chicago Medical-Legal Partnership for Children, said her phone was ringing off the hook all summer and fall from parents panicked that their disabled children would no longer get bus rides to school.
Many parents had young children who were placed in special preschools far from their homes, and they had no way to get their children there, she said.
Zimmerman said she felt blindsided by the whirlwind of complaints.
“We didn’t know where it was coming from,” she said
Zimmerman said she eventually learned that CPS had overhauled its guidelines and created the secret manual. She said creating a manual for special education is not necessarily a bad idea. Written with the help of special education lawyers and parents, it could help standardize practices and create more parity in services across the city. Getting the right help for a student often can depend on the insistence and persistence of the parent and the school staff, she said.
District officials defended the manual’s development, saying CPS central office staff drafted it. But Zimmerman said CPS did not work with parents, school staff, and the city’s special education lawyers who she says best know the realities of working on special education inside the city’s schools. The changes they instituted meant some kids lost services they had relied on in the past and, in some cases, were legally entitled to, she said.
The manual, for example, prohibited disabled preschoolers from getting bus service, Zimmerman explained.
“The policy was inappropriate and frankly illegal,” she said.
She and some parents went public with their complaints. At a Chicago Board of Education meeting in September 2016, Claypool said he had listened to advocates and would allow preschoolers to take the bus.
But Zimmerman said she fears many parents who had been told there was no busing to special education preschools had already decided by then not to enroll their children.
Summer school was also severely restricted.
Teachers were required to document how much students would regress over the summer without summer school. Then, they could only request summer school during particular months. And special meetings with parents often were required to apply for summer school.
As a result, summer school enrollment for special education dropped by more than half.
“Basically a lot of special education teachers went into revolt over the paperwork,” Estvan said. “They just said, ‘Well this is too much.’”
Rodriguez’s son was only given four weeks of summer school — 16 days for three hours a day. She wanted eight weeks, but the teacher checked a box on a form indicating he would only regress three weeks during the summer without more schooling. Rodriguez said the teacher told her she wasn’t aware that checking that box would result in less summer school.
Also, because his individualized education plan said he only needed a shared aide, he didn’t get one during summer, she said. He also didn’t get speech therapy, even though he stutters badly and has a fluency problems, Rodriguez said.
Chicago’s most vulnerable students
Students with disabilities are among the least likely to graduate from CPS, and those with emotional disabilities, like Rodriguez’s son, are among the least likely to ever get a diploma, according to a 2009 study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research.
Advocates and parents said they cannot understand why CPS targeted special education services as a place to save money. CPS officials stressed they are not trying to take away services from children, but rather make sure they get the right services.
Estvan said he’s especially disturbed by the secretive nature of this overhaul. CPS’ decision to shift so many items around in the budget last year means there is virtually no trail of what is spent on these students, he said.
He accused CPS of doing this intentionally “to mask this whole thing, to make it less transparent.”
At the very least, this feeds skepticism from families of students with disabilities about the level of services actually delivered to their children, he said.
Claypool, however, insisted that the budgeting change was an attempt to make principals prioritize the needs of special education students.
For this school year, Claypool said overall spending for special education is expected to stay the same as last year, with a slight increase for the most severely disabled students.
Meanwhile, CPS quietly posted an updated manual online this summer. Lawyers said it incorporates some changes they demanded but problems remain. Zimmerman said it is still cumbersome; written at a college level and only provided in English.
“This is a dense document with tons of burdens put on parents,” she said.
In practice, this means the most onerous — and potentially illegal — parts of the original manual are gone, but students likely can expect fewer services this year, she said.
Rodriguez said she is praying for a better year. But so far, she has been disappointed.
Her concerns are heightened this year as her son transitions to a middle school. She has heard the school has problems with drugs, gangs, and bullying.
“I am just worried he is just going to fall into the bad influences because he wants to have friends,” she said. “He tries to warm up to other students. I am just worried some kids are going to take advantage of him.”
And her son lost his full-time aide, just as she feared because it wasn’t spelled out in his education plan last year. At his new school, he is sharing his aide with another student. In addition, Rodriguez said she has witnessed the aide working with all the students in her son’s special education class.
And she said her son has started to act out.
Her next special education meeting at his school is scheduled for the end of October. She has hired Matt Cohen, the attorney with years of experience, to help her.
Rodriguez said the services her son was denied last year — summer school, speech therapy, and weeks without an aide — compound over time, making it that much harder to get him on track.
But she focuses on what he does have — her support. She is a single mother and is often tired when she gets home from work, but she tries to spend a few hours every evening teaching him.
Rodriguez said she will keep fighting for her son. All she wants, she said, is to give him the best chance possible to live up to his potential.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.