MEDIA WATCH: New York Times noticing what Chicago's 'reporters' keep missing... this time it's the mess at CPS in special education, although Emanuel's press flacks still get the last word

Chicago teachers and the union have been reporting for months that the rabid rush to privatize everything at CPS (before the privatizers get caught) has resulted in a greater than before mess in pre-kindergarten special education. But to venture through a Google search of Chicago education "news" over the past six months, you'd never know there was a problem. Like with so many stories, the "He said -- but Becky Carroll said..." version of CPS reporting is missing a lot of the suffering CPS is creating for children, particularly the most poor and vulnerable. Of course, since the Emanuel administration is constantly creating media events to push its corporate agenda, so there is always plenty of artificially inseminated "news" to report out of Chicago.

CPS propagandists Robyn Ziegler ($110,000 per year as "Director of Media Affairs" according to the latest Position file showing CPS salaries) and Reynaldo Kyles ($82,000 per year as "Director of Faith-Based Initiatives) were monitoring the December 19 Board of Education meeting from the rear when Substance caught their moment for history. Ziegler is one of four people now working in the "Office of Communications" who are being paid more than $100,000 per year. Kyles was the main man who organized the infamous "Rent a Preacher" movement in support of Rahm Emanuel's Longer School Day push in 2011 until the preachers were caught lying to the press in January 2012 following an earlier expose by Substance. Both regularly remind the public that CPS is facing a "fiscal crisis" and an enormous "deficit" while making sure that the expansion of certain bureaucratic jobs is ignored during the public discussion of the public schools of the nation's third largest city. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Not all the nation's reporters are missing what's in front of their noses, even as Chicago's propagandists devote hours each day to calling editors and owners to put the Emanuel administration's spin on every story.

The New York Times has been reporting in some ways more completely and accurately about the messes being created in Chicago's schools by Rahm Emanuel's churning administrations and administrators than Chicago's pundits and scribes. And for better or worse, the Times is still a newspaper of record for the nation.

As 2013 begins, the third largest public school system in the USA degenerates further and further into obscene negligence of all its duties. Facing a supposed "deficit", CPS officials, paid amounts never before paid in the history of the city, are relentlessly substituting propaganda from the most expensive (and extensive) propaganda department(s) in the history of CPS. Those least able to defend themselves -- the poorest children from the poorest families -- are usually suffering the most while Barbara Byrd Bennett -- and Rahm's mercenaries and myrmidons -- draw salaries of more than $200,000 to further privatize and undermine the city's real public schools. Spin is in as never before. Since she took her quarter million dollar a year job, Byrd Bennett has yet to hold one press conference to answer real questions in real time about real issues.

So on January 8 (national print edition), the New York Times reported another shocking Chicago school scandal.

As usual, the CPS response came from a highly paid CPS propagandist. In this case, the propagandist was Robyn Ziegler, who has been in office less than a year-and-a-half and who knows nothing but some vapid talking points when called by a reporter with specific questions about the suffering of special needs children and their families.

To put this in historical context: Ziegler was one of a dozen highly paid propagandists who were brought into the CPS "Office of Communications" after Rahm Emanuel appointed Jean-Claude Brizard as the system's "Chief Executive Officer" in May 2011.

Currently, Ziegler's current salary, according to the most recent CPS Position File, is $110,000 per year. Her job title is "Director of Communications." Ziegler serves under the "Chief Officer for Communications", Becky Carroll, who is being paid $165,000 this year. Ziegler and Carroll are two of the four people who began the year 2013 at salaries of more than $100,000 per year in the CPS "Office of Communications." That is unprecedented, but apparently now "news" in Chicago.

History may be a help as the Barack Obama approaches his second inauguration. By contrast with the past, as 2013 begins, the 20-position "Office of Communications" at CPS is three times as large as it was when Arne Duncan left Chicago to become U.S. Secretary of Education in January 2009.

And Robyn Ziegler, an underling, is one of four people in that department who is being paid this year more than Peter Cunningham was paid at the time Duncan became U.S. Secretary of Education. Duncan took Cunningham (and a few other Chicago people) with him to Washington, D.C. Under Duncan and Cunningham, CPS actually held regular press conference, where reporters were able to ask questions of informed CPS officials about the issues facing the school system. There has not been one open press conference at CPS since Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011. Only Substance has looked in detail at the way in which CPS "communications" has replaced information -- an a huge increase in cost -- during the time when CPS proclaims on an almost daily basis that the city's public schools are facing a "budget crisis."

Rahm and his people understand the current limitations on reporting in the USA. Unfortunately for accuracy, editors at major media, including The New York Times, require their reporters to get "official" statements from press flacks like Robyn Ziegler, Becky Carroll, or Beth Swanson. Reporters are not asked to demand that someone speak for CPS who actually understands, for example, special needs children and the federal law discussed in the article below.

As a result, any examination of the coverage of CPS since the beginning of the Rahm Emanuel era would be hard press to find a quote from anyone who actually knows anything about the services the nation's most vulnerable children should be receiving.

Another example went on line January 7 and in print January 8, 2013 in The New York Times:

Chicago Faulted on Learning Disabilities, By MOTOKO RICH, Published: January 7, 2013

When Rashaan Payne was 2 years old, his pediatrician noticed that he was not talking at the level of most children his age. After autism was diagnosed, Rashaan began receiving speech therapy once a week at his home on the South Side of Chicago, paid for by the federal and state governments.

When he turned 3 in October, federal law mandated that he leave that program and be evaluated for services within the Chicago Public Schools. But while his mother, Treva Thompson, said she has filed paperwork and repeatedly called the neighborhood school, Rashaan has yet to be evaluated. She is worried that after making progress, her son will lose ground.

“It’s like he’s at a pause now,” said Ms. Thompson, who left her factory job packing ice cream cones to stay home and take care of Rashaan. “When you’re dealing with special-needs children, you need to be consistent with whatever you’re doing. You can’t do something and then stop in the middle of it.”

In a complaint filed on Monday with the Illinois State Board of Education, a nonprofit advocacy group says that thousands of children are in Rashaan’s position because the Chicago Public Schools have repeatedly failed to evaluate children with disabilities and move them into special education preschool programs.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states must provide special education services to 3- and 4-year-olds with disabilities that impede their learning even before they are officially enrolled in school. Usually, local school districts place children in prekindergarten classes or send therapists to visit children at home. Under the law, a plan for services must be in place by a child’s third birthday.

Amy Zimmerman, managing attorney for Health & Disability Advocates, which filed the complaint, said parents who apply to have their children assessed at local schools are often ignored or told to wait past that deadline.

“Basically it was any excuse in the book to turn kids away,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “It was probably a lack of understanding that these kids actually belong to them. We talked to a lot of special education folks, and they didn’t even realize they aren’t allowed to say, ‘Come back in three months.’ ”

Across the country, advocates for people with disabilities said that preschool children receive a patchwork of services. In New York, private contractors provide therapy, but state auditors found that companies have diverted government funds to pay for rent and landscaping for executives, among other improper uses.

In some places, the transition from early intervention to preschool special education is smooth, but in others, said James Wendorf, executive director at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, bureaucratic problems lead to delays.

“The handoff to schools is difficult even under the best circumstances,” Mr. Wendorf said. “Are they doing the best they can? If they are doing the best they can, their best is not good enough.”

In Chicago, pediatricians and coordinators of Head Start programs who work with children with learning disabilities said they also were frustrated at delays in getting children placed in preschool special education programs.

“If you miss those two years, there are huge gaps in what the child could have learned and become school ready,” said Dr. Bree Andrews, director of the Center for Healthy Families at the University of Chicago.

In a statement, Robyn Ziegler, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Schools, said the district has had “an issue in delivering these services in an adequate manner and, once identified, it has once again become a top priority for C.P.S. to ensure the timely delivery of these services.”

She said the district was reviewing its special education operations and has designated $4.5 million for these services. The district has already set up three teams devoted to evaluating preschool-age children, and plans to set up more, she said.

Beth Swanson, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s deputy for education, said the mayor “is committed to ensuring that every child in Chicago has access to early education programs.” She added that the city had overhauled how it funds early childhood programs and would focus on improving wait times for special education evaluations as well as train staff at city-funded programs to screen preschool children.

Keisha Allen, whose son, Isaac Lampley, turned 3 in July, hopes he will soon be placed in a preschool special education class. Since a speech therapist stopped coming to his home six months ago, she has applied to his local school and has tried her best to keep Isaac occupied.

She lets him watch children’s programs on Nickelodeon and works on helping him identify colors and letters of the alphabet.

“I would rather him be in a classroom environment,” Ms. Allen said. “I think he would learn better if he were around other kids who have the same disabilities that he has.”

[This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: January 8, 2013 An earlier version of this article misstated Amy Zimmerman’s title at Health & Disability Advocates. She is the managing attorney there, not the director. A version of this article appeared in print on January 8, 2013, on page A12 of the New York edition. It appeared on Page A12 of the national edition delivered in Chicago to Substance].


January 9, 2013 at 7:55 PM

By: Sara Sayigh

Mokoto Rich

MOTOKO RICH has been writing some thoughtful pieces in the NYT. She is also responsive to her readership.

January 10, 2013 at 3:42 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Mokito Rich -- serious reporting, or more corporate 'reform' propaganda

It's probably too soon to judge how Mokito Rich is going to report the education beat in general and Chicago in particular and whether she can escape the corporate "school reform" brainwash. She may or may not degenerate into the kind of Arne Duncan propaganda that one of her colleagues has specialized in now for more than four years, but that work accumulates (and those biases become evident) over time. So the jury is still out.

Except for Michael Winerip, their reporters have been little more than propagandists and apologists for the corporate party line on "school reform."

My point is simple: She let a third level propaganda hack (the $110,000 per year Robyn Ziegler, who is officially "Director of Media Affairs" at this moment in time) speak for the CPS administration (and Board of Education). Although Rich reported that Ziegler made the comment "in a statement", that doesn't deal with the problem.

The New York Times has the power to demand that it speak with someone from the special education department, not a "communications" flack. The story didn't have to come out the day it did.

This type of reporting lets the Board get away with massive flackmanship. Robyn Ziegler is not a valid, reliable, or professional source on information about the Board's provisions for pre-K special education. And the Times can demand -- demand, not politely if necessary -- that CPS identify who is in charge of that part of special education and to interview (not get a "statement" from) that person.

In other words, the Times fell down on the reporting job. Becky Carrolls and her minions can regularly refuse to call back Substance (and for all I know every other reporter in Chicago at this point) and try to spin every story so that "Communications" gets the final CPS word. But that's ridiculous as soon as we put it in context.

Equally ridiculous is to allow a major school system (third largest in the USA; city run by a mayor who three years ago was White House Chief of Staff) to dodge specific questions about how it is following (or violating) federal law.

Until the reporters covering CPS demand interviews with the latest bunch of CPS administrators (and maybe a current organizational chart of who's in charge of what) reports like this one, while appearing to be serious reporting, are actually lightweight "He said, but then she said..." stuff.

January 10, 2013 at 9:29 AM

By: Bob Busch


I wish you would stop showing pictures of Reynaldo Kyles. Just Google his name and you will see what i am talking about.

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