The Special Ed Students Deserve

Katie Osgood

Free-market education reform has hit special-needs students especially hard.

Interview by
Greg Chern

In recent years, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has attempted to implement free-market reforms to its special-education program, closely following the strategy that then–Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out at the 2013 IDEA Leadership Conference. Combining flag-waving with finger-wagging, Duncan argued that reform built on data, technology, and school turnarounds will help the United States achieve prosperity in a “globally competitive economy” and “win the future, as President Obama has challenged us.”

But CPS’s attacks on special education have demonstrated what Duncan’s vision really looks like: overcrowded classrooms, students left behind, and policies that violate federal law.

Katie Osgood, who teaches special education to third and fourth graders on Chicago’s South Side, explained what kind of future we’re “winning” and what kind of schools special-education students deserve.

Greg Chern

What initially drew you to working with special-needs students?

Katie Osgood

I began my teaching certification program and master’s degree in a general education program, but I also had a job at the time working in an inpatient psychiatric unit with a lot of kids with special needs. I found I really loved the population.

At Langston Hughes Elementary, mostly I am “pull-out” — which is the self-contained, smaller special-ed classroom — but I do a little bit of “push-in,” where I go into the gen-ed classroom and work with students there.

Greg Chern

Chicago has around fifty thousand special-needs students. What schools do they tend to be located in and what are the classrooms like?

Katie Osgood

Special education varies greatly between schools. Every school does it a little differently.

You see concentrations of kids in certain schools. CPS runs something called cluster programs, which are specialized classrooms designed for students with more severe and profound needs. These tend to be kids who are nonverbal, who need toileting help, who need a very significantly modified curriculum. Instead of learning reading skills, they’re learning basic life skills. CPS has a number of these cluster programs throughout the schools, and kids who need those services have to go to specific schools around the district.

Most special-education services are run within the neighborhood elementary school or high school. Those programs are for kids with mild to moderate disabilities, things like learning disabilities, high-functioning autism, types of disabilities that can access the general-education curriculum to some extent.

Greg Chern

And those classrooms, in addition to teachers, depend on paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRPs), who are also members of CTU, and special education classroom aides (SECAs), who are members of SEIU Local 73. What role do PSRPs and SECAs play in the schools, and what role do PSRPs play in the union?

Katie Osgood

PSRPs and SECAs play a vital role in a broad range of services. Students who need these specialized services often need individualized help. That’s why we give them an individualized education plan (IEP).

Paraprofessionals support kids both within the smaller, specialized classroom, but also in the gen-ed setting, especially kids who need behavioral support or academic support while they’re with other children. In some cases, the SECA’s role will be one-on-one support with kids who need significant help throughout the day.

I have a couple kids that require one-on-one support. Without it they become aggressive and engage in highly inappropriate behaviors. They’re not learning, and they’re disrupting the learning of the kids around them. Without that one-on-one — someone right there next to them guiding them through with verbal redirection, positive reinforcement, positive encouragement — these kids can’t be successful in the school.

Unfortunately, CPS is really attacking our PSRPs, especially our CTU members. They want these positions to basically not exist anymore. They’ve been slowly but surely moving all of our PSRPs into SECA positions, meaning they’re changing unions and no longer part of our bargaining contract and our stronger union [the CTU]. At my school we’ve had something like fifteen or sixteen different paraprofessionals, but out of that only three of them are PSRPs. The rest are all SECAs.

Greg Chern

What happens to special-ed teaching when CPS cuts staff? For example, the state of Illinois limits classrooms to 30 percent of students with IEPs. According to a CTU report, however, CPS has often overloaded teachers with more than that. What happens to the teaching in classrooms when 30 percent of the students — or more — have IEPs?

Katie Osgood

That’s talking about our kids who are in inclusive settings who are supposed to be getting special education alongside their general education peers. When CPS breaks those class-size limits — which are in there for a reason — you’ve got a tipping point within a classroom where all kids are affected, both gen-ed and special-ed.

Students are unable to get the kind of services they need. You end up doing a lot of crowd control — just keeping kids from devolving into chaos, instead of doing the really strong teaching and learning that we need. When CPS blatantly breaks those rules, it has a really severe impact.

Self-contained settings have limits on class size and require an aide for classes over a certain number. Inclusion settings have limits on percentages of kids with IEPs in the same class (30 percent). If the student is at the highest level of need, which we call the LRE 3 — least restrictive environment, the third level, which means they have almost their entire day pulled away from gen-ed peers — you’re only supposed to have eight kids in a classroom. With paraprofessional support you can go up to fifteen kids, depending on their LRE.

But throughout the district, CPS breaks those rules all the time. That’s not a standard that they really try to meet, by any means. I’ve heard of classrooms where there are twenty kids with moderate to pretty significant needs, all in one space with one classroom teacher and maybe a paraprofessional part of the day. You don’t get teaching done under those circumstances.

Greg Chern

For the students, what happens to their school day when the staff that they need isn’t there?

Katie Osgood

It’s really hard on our kids. I’d say the number one problem that’s happening — and this is happening at almost every school, where CPS is allowing a blatant breaking of federal law — kids have time spelled out in their individual education plan (IEP) when they’re supposed to be getting support, whether it’s paraprofessional or a teacher, and we don’t have staff to cover that. They’re just getting nothing. So we have a number of kids throughout the building, and we’re talking thousands and thousands of accumulated minutes that are just not being met at all.

It’s not the administrator’s fault; it’s not the special-ed teacher’s fault. It’s just that there is not staff to cover everything.

Greg Chern

Let’s look back at how CPS has been trying to chip away and attack special education funding. Last year, they attempted huge cuts midyear, which was unprecedented.

Katie Osgood

Last year, CPS tried to directly cut services — just saying, nope, we’re not going to give you special-ed money for this and that. We’re going to cut this, this, and this. Leaving the IEPs as-is, they tried to cut services, and just didn’t give as much staff, cut staff members, cut budgets.

Greg Chern

According to the CTU’s report, CPS justified this by talking about the “inclusion” of special ed with general ed in order to “close the gap” in achievement between the two populations. How did CPS determine the size of these cuts, and how did teachers initially react to this talk about “inclusion”?

Katie Osgood

CPS went through what they said was a year-and-a-half process. They said they had looked at every IEP in the system. First of all, not even possible. There’s no way ever that they looked at even a fraction of the IEPs out there, because we’re talking thousands and thousands of documents with tens of thousands of pages attached to them. There’s no way CPS actually did a real audit. They just looked system-wide and said, oh, we don’t want to pay this much, and started just cutting based on budget, not on need.

They’re trying to use “inclusion” as a justification. Of course, that’s not a justification, because, as special-ed professionals, we all know that what the law actually requires is not full inclusion. The law requires a continuum; it requires a least restrictive environment. And for some kids, that’s an inclusion setting.

For other kids it’s a pull-out setting, or a highly restrictive setting like a cluster program or a therapeutic day school. CPS knows this legally, but they’re trying to skirt around it using false, civil-rights nonsense language.

Everyone knew that was a sham, that it had nothing to do with what was best for kids — that this was purely about the bottom line. They wanted to save money on the backs of special-ed kids — that was it.

Greg Chern

The IEPs work kind of like contracts between CPS and those students and their families. Union members are pretty familiar with bosses violating their contracts, but when school staff and principals appealed to CPS and showed that these cuts would violate the students’ needs stipulated in IEPs, CPS agreed to cancel the cuts — and in some cases provided more funding. So what’s at stake for CPS now if they violate these IEP contracts?

Katie Osgood

Federal law, that’s what it is. Only, what’s happening right now is that CPS is taking things to a whole new level. They don’t want to provide these services.

We have these legal documents that are backed by federal law, that are demanding certain services, and that open CPS to lawsuits and all kinds of things. But CPS, instead of finding money to cover all those services, has figured out that they need to attack the IEP itself. And that is what has been happening over the past year.

Greg Chern

This is part of what CPS called “a more bottom-up approach.” When did they start this new tack?

Katie Osgood

It started at the end of last year when they required massive new paperwork to get extended school-year services. They basically wanted to save money on summer school for kids with special needs. They changed the process at the end of the year after we’d already written most of our IEPs. They said we have to go back and revise everything with this massive document.

Of course, people were like, I don’t have time to do that. Who has time to do that? So they drastically cut down the number of kids at the summer school last year based on special needs, purely as a money saver.

This year, CPS is playing the long game. They’re actually going after IEPs directly. They’re making the processes so tedious, just so difficult to actually fill in the IEP, that they’re hoping that teachers just won’t ask for expensive services — like paraprofessionals, like transportation — like an extended school year.

For example, they created a new document called a Paraprofessional Justification Form. It’s a form that’s supposed to justify the need for the paraprofessionals we’re writing into the IEP. There’s no legal basis for CPS to do this. There’s nothing in the law that says certain amounts of data or certain amounts of this, that, or the other have to be collected in order for a classroom to get a paraprofessional. It just has to be a team decision that this is a needed service.

But CPS is trying to circumvent law, and instead just create these barriers. They’re hoping that people just aren’t going to go through the paperwork, and that paraprofessionals will be lost, and they’ll save money — off the backs of special-ed kids.

Greg Chern

How did the most recent contract address these issues and special-ed in general?

Katie Osgood

It really didn’t. People were actually pretty upset. There were a few clauses that talked in generalities about special ed, but nothing that actually had any teeth to it.

It actually was a bit contentious within the union. I know a lot of clinicians were saying that they felt like there was nothing in this contract for them. And special-ed teachers as well, because we’re under these new pressures that were heaped onto us in the middle of the contract fight, and they never really got addressed through that contract fight.

Greg Chern

So why didn’t these end up in the final contract?

Katie Osgood

When contract negotiations began, this wasn’t happening as strongly, and so it wasn’t one of the major demands the union made of CPS. The union drew their lines in the sand — no pay cuts, no cuts to our schools — they laid out things we were willing to strike over, but CPS snuck this in over the last round of negotiations, after years of negotiating.

Greg Chern

CPS has engaged in a continuous barrage against the CTU, and the union was trying to hold the line against that attack as new ones were coming in.

Katie Osgood

That’s right. Because of the way it was rolled out too — it hasn’t really come to fruition yet — we don’t know the exact impact yet. We’re still in the process of understanding fully what this looks like. Even the people on CPS’s side — the people that are supposed to be pushing this from the district — don’t even know yet what they’re doing. They’re following directions, stumbling through the dark on this. Everyone’s kind of unclear on what’s happening. All we know is that, all of a sudden, we have these massive new requirements to get services.

We’re seeing the beginning of a major impact. It’s just trickling down now as IEPs are coming up as we start to rewrite them. CPS is taking a long view this time. They’re not trying for the quick cut. They’re trying for saving out over the whole year as each IEP comes up, whatever date that is, and not allowing the services to continue.

Throughout the year, if this does not change, I think we’re going to see a massive decline in services for our kids with special needs.

At the end of this year, how many kids are going to be denied services, how many special-education teachers will leave in disgust? We don’t know yet because it’s still in process, especially as we’re signing the contract. I think people understand that this is going to be really bad, but we haven’t fully felt the effects yet.

[Since contract negotiations ended,] I actually think CPS knows they made a pretty big error in what they rolled out and how they rolled it out. They almost immediately started basically negotiating — not through the contract fight — and brought a bunch of us into a meeting with [Chief Education Officer of CPS] Janice Jackson and the head of the special-education department, the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services (ODLSS), for a negotiation on how to cut back on a some of the paperwork.

But our position is that a lot of the paperwork is just purely unnecessary, if not illegal; it’s designed to make it difficult to get services for children and ends up denying services in the long-run.

Greg Chern

It sounds like Rahm’s contract offer tried to pit special-ed and general-ed teachers and students against each other. How are teachers and the union trying to overcome this divide?

Katie Osgood

Oh yeah. I think everyone understands that these attacks are on all of us and that they harm everybody. Basically CPS, and their new budgeting formulas and all the paperwork and everything, everyone understands they’re just trying to decrease the money going to special education. Which is going to harm everyone’s ability to teach because every gen-ed teacher knows what it’s like to have a child that needs special-ed services and is not getting them, and disrupts your classroom. I would say that we’re pretty united on fighting back.

The second it became clear that this contract was going to pass and people were going to accept it, we immediately sat down with a bunch of special-ed teachers and started writing a resolution. Some of us rank-and-file special-ed teachers helped write it up and we circulated it around among other teachers and clinicians to get feedback.

The resolution itself ended up basically saying that CTU is committed to launching a campaign to defend special education, to protect our working conditions, to fight back against all these new paperwork requirements and cuts that are coming to special education — all the stuff we’ve been talking about. It was a resolution that commits to using the power of our union and our staffers to actually fight this. It passed, I think unanimously, in the House of Delegates [the CTU’s representative governing body made up of rank-and-file teachers].

We’re going to organize our union so that we use this power not just for a strike, but to organize to do collective actions continuously, not just following the state’s timeline through the bargaining process. We’re going to be in a constant state of collective action so that we can fight whatever they throw at us.

Because this is not the last thing they’re going to throw at us. They’re going to come up with some brand new terror. Like, “Oh, by the way, we’re closing a hundred schools.” We don’t know what they’re going to do.

We also included things in our resolution that were ways to model and help our delegates to become more united and work with each other more. So it’s not just that leadership tells us, “This is what’s happening,” and we sit there and take notes and go back to our members. Rather, it’s a two-way street where we’re saying we want to do something around these issues.

So we had them send out sample grievances so that every school can file them around the new paperwork requirements and the things that were threatening to harm our kids. People still want to do something. We mobilized and were ready to walk off the job. We’re ready for more hardcore job actions, and we need to tap into that, instead of taking hit after hit after hit.

Greg Chern

Neoliberal education reform is about forcing kids to compete for funds through standardized testing and racing to the top and then sidelining the kids who can’t. How do these cuts fit in with that model, including the push at the national level from folks like Arne Duncan for standardized testing, school turnaround, and so on?

Katie Osgood

With the choice system that people like Arne Duncan and other education-reform advocates have pushed, they’ve turned kids, especially kids with special needs, into these massive liabilities on schools’ books.

We’ve seen charters, even certain neighborhood schools, and selective enrollment schools, dump kids that don’t look good on their books. And these tend to be kids with special behavioral or academic needs. They’re becoming a liability in this massive choice system where marketing rules supreme, and you have to attract the right kind of kid to your school.

This leaves certain schools as the “dumping schools.” This is where all the unwanted children end up. And it creates this spiral: your school is getting bad test scores, we have to turn you around, we have to shut you down, we’ve cut your budget because your enrollment is dropping, your classes are exploding with chaos.

When you look at the broad picture, it plays out in very specific ways on the ground. In cities like Chicago, where we’ve got these massive spikes in violence, which are connected to the neoliberal project in general, the lack of affordable housing, the lack of jobs, the disinvestment especially in communities of color and high-poverty communities, and especially in our city’s African-American communities, you’ve got these massive spikes in violence as a result.

In early October, we had a shooting outside of our school building. A man died just outside our building, just a block down. We were put on lockdown for thirty minutes.

So I’m sitting here with my children in a corner, huddled in the darkness, while the kids are crying and traumatized. How does anyone expect teachers to be able teach under those circumstances? They cut our psychologists, they cut our social workers so they’re only there two days a week, and they’re not even available for counseling during that time because they have to sit in these arduous IEP meetings that they’re making bureaucratic hurdles for.

Arne Duncan has never stepped foot in a public school as a worker or a student. He went to private school himself, and he’s never worked in a school. These are the people making the decisions that are deeply impacting what we do every day. Their neoliberal projects are having a horrible impact on what we have to do.

Greg Chern

It sounds like CPS’s idea of inclusion isn’t meant to allow students, parents, or teachers who are trained and familiar with students to make real decisions about what students need and how to fund for that. What would real inclusion in decision-making look like? How can we prevent it from being “inclusive austerity” or more cuts from the bottom up?

Katie Osgood

You could say, I want to do inclusion, but right now our kindergarten class has forty-one kids in it. You can’t do inclusion with forty-one kids — even if you’re following the letter of the law — when they’re underfunding schools across the board.

And when they’re doing these choice systems that are filtering kids out, you have these layers of schools. Some schools have very few kids with significant needs, but some have more with special needs where it causes a tipping point in terms of what classroom teachers are able to do.

If we don’t have a mechanism to ensure holistic learning environments that aren’t just like, Johnny gets this number of minutes, and we’ll go to the letter of the law, but we’re not going to address the broader needs. Even if Johnny gets what he’s supposed to on paper, if it’s in the context of forty-one kids in a classroom, it doesn’t matter.

Obviously, I agree with my union’s push for more revenue, because that’s the number one thing we need. We need to fund our schools.

The charter proliferation is a huge problem because charter schools historically and numerically have not taken in our kids with special needs. Those kids are not profitable. Charters don’t want them. As long as there’s a profit motive to not have kids with special needs in your school building, this is going to continue. We need to remove that privatization piece; we need to remove the competitive piece.

We need to look at every school as a community pillar that is funded fully and adequately, and every kid gets whatever they need, whether it’s a pull-out classroom, an inclusive classroom, one-on-one paraprofessional support, or general education. Every kid deserves what they need.