Parents and advocates for students with special needs took to City Hall on October 9, protesting the Chicago Public School’s 2016 proposed spending plan, a plan that includes a significant amount of cuts in the area of special education.
But it isn’t just the parents who are upset about the cuts; students are, too, according to WGN-TV Chicago. A few days before the protests at City Hall, students at Roosevelt High School walked out of class chanting, “S.O.S Save our schools” and “The less you invest, the more we protest” as they paraded down the sidewalk outside their school.

This past August, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) released its annual budget report, a $5.7 billion spending plan which includes $200 million in cuts.

The cuts are “less than an ideal,” said Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool in the August press release, explaining that the cuts were in response to the declining state funding and the rising pension costs. These two factors have cost the district $1 billion in the last two years, he said, and he expects them to cost close to $700 million this year, too.

Claypool explained in the press release that even with these cuts, the district will need close to $500 million in pension funding equity.

“Without these funds, we will be forced to make up the difference through additional cuts and unsustainable borrowing later in the year, which could impact teacher positions and lead to unacceptably large class sizes,” said Claypool. He said that without these extra funds, teacher positions could be impacted.

They “could” be impacted, but according to several sources, they already have.

The budget cuts included the layoff of upwards of 1,500 positions district-wide, according to The Catalyst Chicago, an independent news organization that reports on urban schools. Schools that serve large populations of students with special needs or physical disabilities saw the biggest loss in positions and funds, the report said.

In the most recent round of budget cuts, 161 schools lost special education teachers and 185 schools lost paraprofessional support, according to a special report by the Chicago Teachers Union released September 29. In total, the report said, these schools have lost 237 special education teachers and 337 special education assistants.

The Chicago Tribune reported that three out of every four schools would see cuts in their budget. Some would be cut but as much as 78 percent.

But at what cost to the students?

These types of cuts have disproportionately hurt schools who serve high numbers of students with special needs, according to The Catalyst. The Catalyst’s analysis of the cuts showed that the 128 CPS schools where at least 15 percent of the students have special needs experienced some of the highest staffing cuts. Vaughn Occupational High School, for example, witnessed the loss of 23 special education positions, and according to DNA-Info, the school faces more than $46,000 in cuts.

Vaughn is a high school that provides specialized education for students with cognitive, developmental and multiple disabilities. Many have said that it has been hit the hardest by these cuts.

There was so much uproar over these cuts, especially from the parents at Vaughn, that CPS had to backtrack on August 30 and “agreed to restore 60 special education positions at 30 district-run schools after parents and local staff convinced administrators that they wouldn’t be able to meet student needs with the proposed staffing levels.” But these positions are still only about 10 percent of the total school-based special education positions that were cut from those in place at the end of last school year. Given that about a quarter of the restored positions are going to Vaughn, it still leaves many more schools without adequate special education program coverage.

Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Saucedo Academy in Little Village, said she noticed the impact of the cuts at her own school. She said that her school hasn’t been hit as hard as others, but even at Saucedo, some special education students aren’t getting serviced at all.

“We lost a [special education] position over the summer,” said Chambers, a teacher and a member of the executive board of the Chicago Teachers Union. “We’re actually in need of two positions based on the students’ legal documents … We’ve been fighting for these two positions all year.”

Chambers explained that the loss in positions makes it difficult or impossible for schools to meet the federal requirements for students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Students in special education are required to have IEPs that specify how much time in the day they’re supposed to be with a special education teacher, she explained. It’s a federal law.

“CPS is breaking the law by cutting special education services,” Chambers said.

The students who are hurt most by these cuts are the developmentally disabled students who require assistance for various daily tasks like feeding, shoe tying, etc.  throughout the day, she said.

“[The students] may just be sitting there, waiting to go to the bathroom and there are no assistants around to help them,” she said.

Overall, the cuts have proven to be more detrimental to CPS than beneficial.

“They’re targeting the most vulnerable students,” said Chambers. “They’re setting these students up for failure.”