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Special education teachers outlined their needs at a Chicago Teachers Union press conference, Oct. 24, 2019.

Special education teachers outlined their needs at a Chicago Teachers Union press conference, Oct. 24, 2019.

The state oversees Chicago’s special education program. Will the new teachers union contract help?

One of the most-touted goals of the 11-day teachers strike was better special education services for a district currently under state oversight because of its illegal practices that denied or delayed services to an estimated 12,000 students.

The tentative agreement that ended the strike spells out some possibilities for improvement but also renews questions about whether Chicago Public Schools can fix its special education issues, especially when it comes to adding essential staff.

The agreement earmarks $2.5 million per year to reduce the workloads of special education case managers, counselors, and clinicians — while also promising not to increase teachers’ workloads as the district tries to comply with state orders to provide “compensatory” services for thousands of students who lost out on needed instruction.

“The workload reduction is really important,” but is also cause for concern when it comes to how the district will provide those services in a timely manner, said Chris Yun, education policy analyst for Access Living, one of the nonprofit agencies that first asked the Illinois Board of Education to investigate the district’s special education services in 2017.

The state’s involvement followed a WBEZ investigation that found the district cut its budget and illegally limited services for special education students like busing, individual aides, and summer school, which could have resulted in students falling behind. Lawmakers and advocates alike say they have been frustrated by the pace of change up to now, emphasizing their concern during a legislative hearing held mid-strike.

The district will need a robust special education staff if it is to provide compensatory services, serve current students appropriately, and safeguard educators’ workloads. But while the contract deal spells out plans for hiring new nurses and social workers, there is no similar provision for adding additional special education teachers.

Even for those sorely needed support staff positions, tangible results could be a long ways off. The district has maintained hundreds of unfilled vacancies for over a year, Yun said, with current openings for approximately 260 special education teachers, 45 nurses, and 80 social workers. The vacancies, advocates have charged, are among the reasons why the district has not provided adequate services.

“Just because they add positions doesn’t mean there will be real people there,” Yun said. “The district is at a crisis level with a very severe level of vacancies as it is.”

And the impact is unclear for the hiring that is spelled out. The proposed contract requires the district to incrementally add nursing, counseling, and other positions over five years. It isn’t set to reach the goals of having at least one full-time social worker and one nurse for every school until the end of the 2022-23 school year.

Under the deal, a district-union committee will identify 120 schools with high needs, and some of them would be assured new positions each year. Those schools would also have the ability to choose an additional support position as part of the district’s pledge to phase in 30 additional positions per year for the high-need schools beginning next year.

It’s possible that the $2.5 million in workload reduction spending could support additional staffing. The contract deal does not go into detail, and Chicago Public Schools officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The agreement does offer some protections for students with disabilities and their teachers, including guarantees that special education teachers be the last tapped as substitutes and that parents be informed if their child goes without services because of coverage issues.

CPS parent and Raise Your Hand advocate Mary Fahey Hughes said she felt the contract was special education advocates’ best shot at forcing real change, and it fell short in the end.

“It’s a real no-win situation,” she said. “They can say they’re going to hire 500 nurses, but they’ve had vacancies for years. There’s no monetary ramifications if they don’t achieve it. It doesn’t have any teeth.”