Parents Sue To Halt Chicago School Closings, Alleging Discrimination

Ramsin Canon

In a demonstration in March, protestors criticized the CPS closings for racial discrimination. Now, parents of students with disabilities are suing to stall the closings until their discrimination case can be heard.

Renowned Chica­go labor attor­ney Thomas Geoghe­gan paused for the third time and, with a slight sigh, asked fed­er­al dis­trict judge John Lee, Your Hon­or, could you instruct the wit­ness to answer the ques­tion Yes’ or No’?”

After days of often high­ly tech­ni­cal tes­ti­mo­ny, patience seemed to be wear­ing thin on Thurs­day, July 18, the third and next-to-last day of hear­ings on an injunc­tion brought by Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) par­ents of stu­dents with spe­cial needs to pre­vent CPS from clos­ing 50 schools. 

The par­ents, who are suing to halt the school clos­ings on the grounds that they vio­late the Illi­nois Civ­il Rights Act and the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, have filed for a pre­lim­i­nary injunc­tion, say­ing that stu­dents will suf­fer irrepara­ble harm if the schools are closed before the full case goes to trial.

The recal­ci­trant wit­ness Geoghe­gan faced was Markay Win­ston, chief offi­cer of the Chica­go Pub­lic Schools’ Office of Spe­cial Edu­ca­tion and Sup­ports (OSES). She had been called as Chica­go Pub­lic Schools’ expert on the impact of school clo­sures on stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties. In cross-exam­i­na­tion, Geoghe­gan grilled Win­ston on whether CPS had done its home­work before decid­ing to close the schools.

Can you point us to any peer-reviewed lit­er­a­ture regard­ing the effect of school clo­sures on spe­cial edu­ca­tion stu­dents?” he asked. Win­ston was unable to do so, say­ing that the mat­ter has not been stud­ied directly.

Have you read the RAND study?” No, she had not.

Have you read the Con­sor­tium study?” No; she had looked at parts” of it. This rev­e­la­tion elicit­ed some guf­faws from the gallery; the study by the Chica­go Con­sor­tium on School Research at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go has been wide­ly read in the Chica­go edu­ca­tion community.

Are you aware of the Cat­a­lyst sto­ry?” (The arti­cle, from the Spring 2013 issue of Cat­a­lyst Chica­go, found that after one series of school clo­sures, the dis­trict lost track” of 11 per­cent of the stu­dents affected.)

Win­ston said she was not aware of the sto­ry, nor did she know whether any­one on her staff had seen it.

The thrust of Geoghegan’s cross-exam­i­na­tion, and the tenor of the hear­ings gen­er­al­ly, was to estab­lish the care­less­ness with which CPS under­took the largest round of pub­lic school clos­ings in Amer­i­can history.

In May, the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion, the may­oral­ly appoint­ed body respon­si­ble for the Chica­go Pub­lic Schools, vot­ed along the rec­om­men­da­tions of CPS CEO Bar­bara Byrd-Ben­nett to close 50 schools and send the stu­dents to wel­com­ing schools.” CPS’s cri­te­ria for school clo­sures focused almost exclu­sive­ly on deter­min­ing whether schools were under­uti­lized” — whether enroll­ment had fall­en below what the num­ber of rooms in the school build­ing should be able to sup­port. The announce­ment, which came despite anti-clo­sure protests through­out the win­ter and spring, was met with out­rage by many Chica­go com­mu­ni­ties and by the Chica­go Teach­ers Union.

The stud­ies Geoghe­gan cit­ed sug­gest that a sud­den change in school envi­ron­ment is trau­mat­ic for stu­dents, although it’s unclear whether the effects are last­ing. The RAND/​Vanderbilt study found that unless the wel­com­ing schools are sub­stan­tial­ly high­er-per­form­ing” than the clos­ing schools, there is no ben­e­fit for stu­dents and pos­si­bly some harm. Research by the Chica­go edu­ca­tion news and research mag­a­zine Cat­a­lyst sug­gests the receiv­ing schools are not sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter, at least as mea­sured by their test scores. 

But par­ents of chil­dren with spe­cial edu­ca­tion needs are par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned. They argue that a trau­mat­ic, sud­den relo­ca­tion to a new school will per­ma­nent­ly dam­age their children’s edu­ca­tion, which is gov­erned by legal­ly man­dat­ed indi­vid­u­al­ized edu­ca­tion pro­grams,” or IEPs, devel­oped with spe­cial edu­ca­tion teach­ers, the stu­dents, par­ents and admin­is­tra­tors. By mov­ing to new schools, the IEP process may have to be reboot­ed or retooled. In fact, Win­ston sug­gest­ed in her tes­ti­mo­ny that the dis­trict would alter the instruc­tion­al min­utes dic­tat­ed by a child’s IEP based on the resources of the receiv­ing school, which caused audi­ble gasps in the gallery from the plain­tiff parents.

In their suit, the par­ents are argu­ing that the city did not take the par­tic­u­lar­ized needs of chil­dren with spe­cial edu­ca­tion needs into account when order­ing the clos­ings. Under the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, a gov­ern­ment dis­crim­i­nates when it uses deci­sion-mak­ing cri­te­ria that are dis­crim­i­na­to­ry in their effect, with­out suf­fi­cient jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. If Win­ston and CPS didn’t look for less dis­crim­i­na­to­ry alter­na­tives when mak­ing the clo­sure deci­sions, it will be hard for them to defend those deci­sions in the sub­se­quent tri­al, which may be grounds enough for a pre­lim­i­nary injunc­tion. The plain­tiffs have ham­mered on the fact that CPS’s clo­sure cri­te­ria con­sid­ered almost exclu­sive­ly the uti­liza­tion” — the ration of enroll­ment to build­ing size — of schools. In response, Win­ston stressed that the dis­trict will use tran­si­tion sup­ports” for spe­cial ed stu­dents chang­ing schools, such as tutor­ing, men­tor­ing and one-on-one counseling.

The par­ents also argued that when deter­min­ing whether a school was under­uti­lized,” CPS ignored the need for ded­i­cat­ed class­rooms for small-sized spe­cial-edu­ca­tion clus­ters.” To rebut this argu­ment, CPS called its sec­ond wit­ness of the day, Adam Ander­son, the chief offi­cer of Port­fo­lio and Plan­ning” for CPS and one of the devel­op­ers of the clo­sure cri­te­ria. Ander­son tes­ti­fied that spe­cial-ed class­rooms were account­ed for in the uti­liza­tion for­mu­la by an allowance for up to 20 per­cent of class­room space. Despite this dis­count, how­ev­er, research by Jeanne Olson, a CPS par­ent and researcher at North­west­ern University’s School of Edu­ca­tion and Social Pol­i­cy, sug­gests the for­mu­la cur­rent­ly in use is still insuf­fi­cient to account for spe­cial-ed use of classrooms.

On cross exam­i­na­tion, Ander­son tes­ti­fied that Byrd-Ben­nett nev­er asked his office to con­sid­er the impact of school clo­sures on spe­cial edu­ca­tion stu­dents, specifically.

If the court issues the injunc­tion, CPS would be required to pre­vent imple­men­ta­tion of the school clo­sure plan for at least a year. The par­ties’ briefs on the injunc­tion are due in ear­ly August, with a deci­sion expect­ed lat­er that month.

Ram­sin Canon lives and works in Chicago.
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