Access Living and other disability rights groups hold press conference and protest against special education budget cuts despite being barred from use of the full space adjacent to the Board of Education headquarters...

Those protesting against the Board of Education's cuts to special education included children with disabilities, disability rights activists, and the parents of children with disabilities. The sign "Markay Winston, show us the data" refers to the claim by Chicago Public Schools special education chief Markay Winston, who claimed the special education cuts were based on a "study." Despite requests for the "study" under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Chicago Public Schools officials have refused to produced the "study." Substance photo by David Vance.At 9:00 on Wednesday, August 26, 2015, before the Chicago Board of Educations monthly meeting in which it was expected they would vote on the districts budget, Access Living and other advocates for students and education, especially for the education of students with disabilities, held a press conference. The location was just across the street from the Boards new headquarters at 42. W. Madison, and it was successful despite the efforts of CPS officials and the owners of the bank building on the west side of Dearborn St. to disrupt the protest and restrict the protesters and the press.

Although the location across the street has a small plaza of sorts, this apparently was not public space nor was the public welcome. The press conference crowd was crammed off the open plaza onto the sidewalk corner of Madison and Dearborn, particularly from the turf-protecting actions of the building occupants there, along with a small blockade of Chicago police officers on bikes. One sign indicated occupants as Sidney Austin LLP.

What appeared to be security guards for the building instantaneously appeared to shoe off one young man as he sat on the edge of a flower bed on the corner, the guard retreating only when the young man sat down on the sidewalk instead. The same for a camera man who thought he might stand on the edge.

Across the street in front of the Board of Education, a construction fence with green lining blocked protesters there from view all along Madison, with only a few signs occasionally bobbing up above the fence. Signs for the Access Living press conference included: SpEd Cuts Are Illegal and Markay W. Show Us the Data! [Note: This refers to Markay Winston, Chief Officer of the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services.]

One red t-shirt read: Keep Calm + Let the Special Education Teacher Handle It. The crowded corner of at least 50 supporters, including 5-10 in wheelchairs, began chanting, with accompanying sign language. Special education is under attack! Whatll we do? Stand up! Fight back! In particular, there were many supporters from Jacqueline Vaughn Occupational High School and Daniel C. Beard Elementary School (students with special needs, PreK through Grade 3, 50% on spectrum for autism), as well as Pilsen Alliance and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

Jaime Cornejo, wearing the purple Access Living t-shirt and introducing each of the other speakers, said that we were here for students with disabilities in response to CPSs (Chicago Public Schools) cuts to special education. These would have a direct and negative impact on the education of students with disabilities in achieving their goals. These educational goals lead to future access to jobs, future opportunities. To the people of Chicago, these cuts were a lack of investment now, a lack of support now [that would impact the citys future with these students].

Rod Estvan, Access Living Policy Analyst Education, said that he would testify before the Board this morning about something pretty simple: this budget did not help children with disabilities. It would not help them read, transition to life, nor help their parents, at all. He called CPS a district with an illness, an illness that year after year constantly cuts positions then pretends to restore them. Schools open with no one; then there are fewer if any teachers to hire in November, December, January.

A conductor on the red line told Mr. Estvan to try to say something positive, so this is what he decided to say: This is not necessarily about bad people but some very bad policies. This was a battle for our childrens lives.

In addition to speaking at the press conference, Rodney Estvan of Access Living also spoke during the August 26, 2015 Board of Education meeting (above). Estvan told the Board that it had been disrupting special education services for several years by making cuts such as those proposed in the "Final Budget FY 2016" and then unmaking those cuts during the school year, when principals found it nearly impossible to hire special education teachers. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Mr. Estvan gave the example of what had happened at Jackie Vaughn High School: the Board restored 14 positions based on the work of the parents and principal. Something was very wrong with that [the Board being so unaware of the local impacts until it was pointed out to them].

When CPS began to announce the special education cuts, CPS officials claimed that it was based on a "study." But, as Estvan pointed out, despite requests the Board has not provided the "study" to the public.

So Estvan asked about CPSs 18 month study. Did anyone see it? If not, then how could anyone know it existed?

He spoke against CPSs claims, stating otherwise: Special education student-teacher ratios were NOT met. He encouraged everyone to stay together going forward and to continue this dialoging.

The next speaker was Cindy Ok, parent of two students in special education at Jaqueline B. Vaughn Occupational High School on the Northwest side. She had nothing but the highest praise for the dedicated staff and people at the school, helping her children every day with job skills and to be more independent, so they can become contributing taxpayers. She said that many more parents could not be there due to work, having an ill child, and in one case, a parent who could not afford bus fare. Each person there today represented many more, she said.

On CPSs website, Vaughn was listed for poverty at 80.5%. So, CPS was making these cuts against those who not only had disabilities but were also from the lowest socio-economic stratus. This demographic needed a leg up instead of a kick to the ground. This reporter was unfortunately not able to hear the words of a student named Rachel, who spoke briefly but with enthusiasm and excited the crowd on the corner as those in wheelchairs were maneuvered into a semi-circle.

Beard Elementary School Parent Laurie Viets said that she would shock the crowd with information that CPS knew how to get special education right. She felt like she won a CPS lottery for her son to attend Beard School, specializing in education for students with autism. But over time this changed as a CPS started a do more with less campaign, leading to this year in which they were now being told that CPS knew the great challenges but told them to be creative as they lost 7 teachers, 5 aides, their librarian, and their music program.

Ms. Dietz told the crowd that when CPS said the slash and burn was because students were not there DO NOT BELIEVE THEM! Studies show that presently 1 in every 68 children is diagnosed with autism, and this number is rising. CPS is not getting the job done in services and supports to these students. The Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services had no handle on the job. Parents should not have to BEG for services. These students needed more not less. With less and less, soon there would be nothing left, children taking the hit by the Board.

Jaime Cornejo introduced Sheila, who spoke of students with disabilities needing multiple services. CPS budget cuts would impact the quality of special education services less prep time, less individualized instruction. Children were being cheated; teachers and classroom assistants were being cheated. There were no winners. To cut the budget was to cut the future.

Attorney Margie Wakelin, of the organization "Equip For Equality," said that these were Civil Rights issues. Families were hurt and scared. CPS was claiming that special education programs were overstaffed. Where was the report? Did anyone see it? [There were yells of NO!]

They had FOIAed CPS for a copy (Freedom of Information Act request) for the "study", but access to this report was denied. Was CPS lying? CPS needed to be transparent. We need more not less.

This was the wrong direction.

Chicago Teachers Union Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle (above with bullhorn) told the protesters that the union fully supports the rights of children with disabilities and their families. Mayle was a special education teacher before she was elected one of the four officers of the union in June 2010. Substance photo by David Vance.CTU Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle spoke next. She said that before she worked for CTU she was a special education teacher, wanting to help those who needed the most. If there is not copy of this 18 month study, how could CPS be making these budget decisions without data? CTU was hearing of devastating cuts, represented here by Beard and Vaughn schools. CPS was trying to move cluster programs into general education without proper supports, including changing IEPs without parental support. It was ironic that this was taking place during the 25th year anniversary of the ADA (American Disabilities Act). She told the crowd, you have the full support of CTU. She pointed over at the Board of Education headquarters across the street, in their fancy new building, shortchanging children. We would keep fighting. We know that we are right.

There were a few more speakers, but this reporter moved across the street to the protest in front of the Board of Education at this time.


August 27, 2015 at 3:06 PM

By: Susan Ohanian

budget cuts

This news about special ed is especially disturbing. The mysterious 'study' that no one has seen or even named sounds like Joe McCarthy's briefcase trick: "In this briefcase I have the names.. ."

He just never opened the briefcase.

August 28, 2015 at 10:53 AM

By: Rod Estvan

Thanks to Substance and Susan

On behalf of the staff at Access Living that has been working to oppose the special education cuts being implemented by CPS we want to thank you for your coverage of the protest and our comments at the Board meeting.

Rod Estvan

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