State steps up monitoring of special ed inclusion

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The Illinois State Board of Education is heading into a busy summer on behalf of children with disabilities in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

By July 1, the ISBE must develop new procedures to improve and intensify monitoring and enforcement of the federal requirement that children with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment possible.

By the middle of July, the ISBE, in cooperation with CPS and attorneys representing some 53,000 CPS students with disabilities, is required to have specific numerical targets and benchmarks. Those will include the percentage of special education students in CPS who spend most of their day in a regular classroom and the percentage of students served districtwide in self-contained classrooms and separate public or private schools. Targets will be based on national averages, according to Designs for Change, a school reform organization that first documented illegal segregation of Chicago’s special education students in a 1991 report.

The ISBE also is required to have a cadre of freshly trained monitors ready by the end of August to work with at least 25 CPS schools during the 1999-2000 school year.

“We’ll look at data from each school and see which schools probably need help as far as dealing with LRE,” says Gordon Riffle, special assistant to State Supt. Max McGee for special education coordination. “If schools are placing a lot of kids in self-contained programs or out of the school, then we’ll probably look at those schools first.”

Any school cited by the state board will be required to develop a “corrective action plan” and a budget for it within 45 days.

These and other steps are spelled out in a settlement the state board reached in a 7-year-old suit filed by Designs for Change and the Northwestern University Law Center.

The state school board has committed $21 million over the next seven years to pay for staff planning and development and other measures needed to bring cited Chicago schools into compliance with the least restrictive environment requirement. These include helping special education and regular classroom teachers learn how to work collaboratively in the regular classroom. Part of that money will go for creation of a resource center, or clearinghouse, for teachers and principals.

“There are no trick ponies here,” Riffle says. “They will know exactly what we’ll be looking for and how well [schools] should be doing it. The entire philosophy is to work together [with CPS] and not separately.”

A final implementation plan, due by September, will spell out how many schools will be monitored for compliance over the course of the next six years. It also will provide details on how the state will restructure teacher certification in Illinois in phases. Phase 1 will include the redesign of special education certification policies and is expected to be done by next Jan. 1. Phase 2 will include a redesign of the regular education certification procedures, which might include required courses on inclusion. The state is expected to propose the new regular certification procedures by Jan. 1, 2002 and complete the process by Jan. 1, 2003.

“For kids now, the impact of the settlement is that resources will be coming to their schools to assist teachers,” says CPS attorney Kathleen Gibbons. “But for little kids and future generations, new certification procedures will be the No. 1, best result of this case. That is what will give this case long-lasting impact.”

In 1992, Designs and Northwestern filed suit against both CPS and the state board, charging the latter with failure to monitor and enforce the federal law on educating children with disabilities. The CPS reached a settlement in late 1997, but the state school board went to trial. In February 1998, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Gettleman ruled against the state and ordered it to develop remedial plans to monitor and enforce compliance with the least restrictive environment requirement.

‘This thing has teeth’

The state plan came last December as Gettleman prepared to issue a court-ordered remediation plan. It coincided with McGee’s first month on the job.

The ISBE agreement “means that from now on, there are limits,” says Joy Rogers, a Loyola University professor and leading Chicago advocate of least restrictive environment. “This says there are fixed targets and there are legitimate [national] comparisons that can be made. This is the first time there has been some commitment to complying with federal law, something we can believe. It’s exciting. It’s very clear. This thing has teeth.”

If all goes as planned, she says, “The settlement with the CPS will work from the top down with the most compliant schools. This settlement [with ISBE] will work from the bottom up and catch the most non-compliant schools.”

The state plan will be carried out concurrently with a CPS initiative called Education Connection, a voluntary program begun last year in 28 schools and funded with $24 million in CPS money over seven years. Sue Gamm, CPS director of specialized services, says the Education Connection will be expanded to another 30 schools next year and another 30 the year after that. (For more on special education in Chicago, see Catalyst, June 1998.)

Designs for Change attorney Sharon Weitzman Soltman concurs with Rogers that “the ISBE now has to do things properly. If they don’t do it right, we’ll be there and so will the court. They have to comply with the [federal] mandate and if they don’t, it’s now enforceable in court.”

In 1994, about half of the system’s special education students were spending most of their school day in regular classes, according to Weitzman Soltman. Nationally, the average percentage was in the high 70s, she says. In a comparison with other states, Illinois has ranked at or near the bottom for many years; the federal mandate for least restrictive environment was adopted in 1975.

In his ruling against the state board, Gettleman noted that up to 90 percent of mildly retarded students in CPS were capable of spending most of their school day in a regular classroom, yet only about 20 percent spent more than half their time in a regular classroom.

Gamm says the state plan is “a complement to what [CPS] is doing. It means we can work with twice as many schools at once.”

Riffle says dialogue with CPS administrators and lawyers for the plaintiffs has been constructive, and he does not foresee any major obstacles to implementation of the ISBE plan.

“Anytime you try to implement something and have plaintiffs involved from an urban district the size of Chicago, there will be growing pains,” Riffle says. “But I have found the people in CPS I’ve worked with to be very compatible, and I’ve found the plaintiffs to be extremely interested in working with us to make sure we provide services that are best for kids. It’s been kind of nice. At least we have some kind of openness up front. We’ll stumble around a bit, but probably within a year you’ll see this process looking pretty well greased.

A former school psychologist and school district special education director, Riffle believes “the critical component of any effective teacher is credibility. If you have credibility, then you aren’t going to be threatening and you’ll be able to work with people and go in and help kids learn. If we approach this from that frame of reference, then I think special education and regular education will get rid of that dividing line and we’ll all become educators. It’s just letting those barriers down. There is no reason to have special and regular education teachers. In my opinion, we have educators, and some just have different kinds of skills and expertise.”