The crime, and the cover-up: Emanuel administration violates federal law to hide criminal conduct in special education practices.

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Our organization–The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association (CPAA)–submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to Chicago Public Schools officials. We requested documents submitted by principals who appealed for more special education funding. Before releasing the documents, CPS redacted nearly every word of each principals request. Unfortunately, these redactions are just the beginning of the story.

This article is organized into three parts:

  1. Crime #1: Delay and Deny
  2. Crime #2: Racially Biased Decision-Making
  3. Crime #3: The Cover-up

I’ve discussed parts 1 and 2 extensively in other articles and posts. If you’re familiar with them, feel free to skip to part 3.

Crime #1: Delay and Deny

Divestment and Diversion

There has been a focused and relentless effort on the part of the Emanuel administration to disinvest from CPS students. Emanuel has cut school funding repeatedly in order to redirect those funds to other priorities (e.g., debt service, custodial privatization, wasteful and redundant school construction, etc.).  At first, special education students had not been the direct targets of these divestment and diversion efforts. That changed in 2015.

Targeting Special Education

In 2015-2016 a pilot special education defunding strategy was instituted and expanded district-wide in the 2016-2017 school year. This strategy drastically reduced special education funding across the district and created demands for additional resources.  CPS officials responded to the demand for more resources with a budget appeals process. If you were a principal and the resources provided to your school were grossly inadequate, you had the option of submitting an appeal.

Investigating the Budget Appeals Process

CPAA worked with principals to produce a timeline of two schools’ appeals that demonstrated systematic attempts to delay and deny services to students. After we made that timeline public at a Board of Education meeting in the spring of 2017, reporter Sarah Karp produced the groundbreaking WBEZ report, “CPS Secretly Overhauled Special Education At Students’ Expense.”

Around that time, a coalition of legal advocates began to meet and strategize about how to best approach the problem. CPAA joined this coalition. After getting stonewalled by CPS officials for an entire year, the coalition wrote an open letter to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and appeared before the Board on November 16, 2017 to call for an investigation of CPS’ efforts to delay and deny special education services. ISBE conducted an inquiry and issued their final report on April 18, 2018. Both their report and Sarah Karp’s investigation affirm the existence of policies and practices that systematically delay and deny services to students who need them.

Crime #2: Racially Biased Decision-making

In addition to these reports, a CPAA investigation found grossly unjust racial disparities among schools who submitted appeals for additional special education funding. We have released this data in previous reports. Here is a short summary of what we found.

Percentage of request granted, overall

Principals requested over $24 million but received less than $4 million (15%).

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Percentage of request granted, by race

As the graphic below depicts,  CPS officials granted 60% of the amounts requested by schools serving majority white student populations. However, schools serving mostly Hispanic students received 14% of the amount they requested, while majority black schools received just 9% of what they requested. Money Jars

Specifically, 10 majority white schools were given $1,033,000 of $1,717,583 requested; 60 majority Hispanic schools were granted only $1,286,239 of $9,024,755 requested; and CPS conceded only $1,110,470 of $12,023,534 requested by 76 schools serving majority African-American students.

The Funding Extremes of the 10 Most and Least “White”

CPS officials approved the appeals of the 10 schools with the highest percentage of white students to the tune of $1,033,000. At the same time, the 10 schools with the lowest percentage of white students–all majority African American–were denied completely.

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Below is a school-by-school analysis.

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Gross Inequity: 4 > 56 ?

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This section uses the amounts given to the above four majority white schools as a point of comparison to the amounts received by schools serving Hispanic and African American students.

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The total amount awarded to 56 majority Hispanic schools ($735,534) was $92,000 less than the $828,000 combined total granted to just four majority white schools.

Gross Inequity: 4 > 74 ?

The $760,470 awarded to 74 majority black schools is less than the combined total granted to just four majority white schools.

4 More 74.png


A racial double standard for special education support

CPS told principals that their appeals would be denied if they had assistant principals and less than 450 students. The implication was that they could fund their special education needs by cutting their assistant principal positions. However, the highest award in the district was given to a majority white school with less than 450 students and an assistant principal.

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It is noteworthy that despite the fact that we submitted convincing data describing this discriminatory appeals process, ISBE did not address this issue at all in its recently released findings. It is as if very few people in positions of power want to defend poor African American and Hispanic students from the onslaught of injustice that is the Emanuel Administration.

Bias on Top of Bias

I’ve presented the above data more than 50 times to groups across the city, and I’ve noticed a distinct difference in the response of most white people and most people of color when confronted with the overwhelming evidence of toxic racial bias in CPS’ funding appeals decisions. People who are categorized as black or brown typically see these findings as an affirmation of what they’ve experienced to be true in their dealings with the school district under the Emanuel administration. People who categorize themselves as white, however, were far more likely to ask questions about the quality of the appeal applications submitted by the principals at the majority African American and Hispanic schools.

Given the strict numerical nature of an appeal (you either have the staffing to meet the number of required special education services minutes, or you don’t) the idea that principals of the schools with more white students exhibited perfect mathematical reasoning while those leading black or brown schools exhibited the opposite is so ridiculously improbable that it would be laughable in any serious culture in which reason ruled the day. Unfortunately unconscious or implicit bias rule the day in our culture.  This doesn’t mean that those who hold biases are “bad” people. Good people can have an unconscious bias that they don’t recognize. We all have them to some degree; unconscious biases against people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, and the list goes on. As I finished my presentation I watch otherwise sane, rational, and ethical people–good people–pose questions that implied a lack of basic mathematical computation abilities in the leaders of black and brown schools.

Rather than try to undo 350 years of ingrained cultural bias against people of color, I worked with a couple of attorneys to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to CPS. Our goal was to obtain the appeals submitted by principals of various types of schools so people could see the quality of the appeals for themselves and rule out this ridiculous theory.

Crime #3: The Cover-Up

Getting the appeals documents

On July 21, 2017 we began the process of trying to get public information from Emanuel administration officials at CPS. The process is supposed to take two weeks. Here’s how our process went:

July 21: Submitted a FOIA request for documents related to special education appeals.
July 28: Request denied for being “Unduly Burdensome.”
September 14: Submitted an amended request for appeals of 25 schools.
September 28: Received notice that CPS needed 10 additional days to respond.
October 13: Sent a note to CPS letting them know their 10 days had come and gone.
October 17: Sent another note emphasizing that I did not consent to any further delays.
October 20: Reminded CPS once again that I did not consent to further delays.
November 10: CPS produced highly redacted documents from 25 schools.

The best way to describe what CPS released to us is to simply show it.

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A losing justification for secrecy

Emanuel administration officials at CPS stated their reason for redacting the entire principal request is because the request was “pre-decisional and deliberative material reflecting the reason why these employees are requesting additional funds.”

From the LaQuan McDonald video, to the Barbara Byrd Bennett emails, the Emanuel administration has a record-setting losing streak when their decisions to redact or deny information is challenged in court. If we challenged these redactions, I’m certain the suit would have added to their judicial losses.

Fortunately, we did not have to challenge them. CPS employees provided me with original unredacted copies of decision reports. These original documents revealed to us that their redactions where not the worst thing about the Emanuel administration’s response to our FOIA request.

Doctoring documents

There was one section of the document that CPS did not redact: the “Decision” section at the end that described their reasons for approving or denying the appeal.  Instead of redacting it, CPS doctored it. Look below at the two versions of the appeal of a Southside elementary school. The first is the original version released to the school. The one below it is the version CPS released in response to our FOIA request. Take a moment to compare the two.

Version Released to School

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Doctored Version Released via FOIA

Altered Version

The highlighted text identifies sections that were deleted or altered in some way. There were three significant changes. Perhaps the most glaring alteration is where CPS deletes the section in which they explain their denial of the special education staffing appeal was based on the fact that the appeals committee is concerned with the fact that, “an unusually high percentage” of students require paraprofessional support.

CPS had a compelling reason to delete this wording: It is illegal.

In essence the statement is a declaration from CPS that it will not provide a student the services she needs because she attends a school with a lot of other students who need a similar service. That is illegal. The fact that Emanuel’s school officials deleted this denial justification from FOIA documents is compelling evidence that they knew it violated special education law.

It is noteworthy that this school (Burke Elementary) had the highest percentage of impoverished families among those who submitted appeals. Might the district have considered that Burke’s higher-than-average level of poverty might have just a little bit to do with the fact that a higher-than-average number of its students come to school with greater-than-average needs? 

CPS doctored the document again when they replaced “to determine whether” with “as.” This changed the meaning entirely from a district review based on challenging the IEP needs to a review based on looking at IEP needs.  Changing the word over-reliance to over-relevance also substantially alters the meaning of that statement from one that challenges IEP needs to one that makes little to no sense of any kind.

Finally, the acronym “SECA” (Special Education Classroom Assistant) was deleted from the next-to-last bullet point.

CPS and City Hall should be prosecuted, not trusted

The Freedom of Information Act is one of the most important legal tools citizens and reporters have for furthering government transparency in the United States. The Emanuel administration’s brazen efforts to violate and undercut FOIA should be a major source of concern for us all.

As President of CPAA, I call on the appropriate inspector general to launch investigations of the FOIA practices and policies of CPS and Emanuel administration officials. Furthermore I call on the Illinois and United States Attorneys General to launch investigations of administration officials who had any role in violating the rights of special education students, and/or a role in violating federal FOIA laws to cover their tracks.

From its effort to delay and deny special education services, to the crimes it committed against black and brown children with its racially discriminatory decision making, to the illegal tactics it used to hide those crimes by doctoring records, CPS under the Emanuel administration cannot be trusted. There must be strong state oversight of the district from ISBE in the form of a monitor who can take and investigate complaints, check in regularly with principals and case managers around issues of adequate staffing and resources, and scrutinize CPS justifications for denying staffing, among other responsibilities. The district also needs to work with ISBE and advocates to establish a budget for training programs for parents, and compensatory education for students affected by their gross negligence.


Troy LaRaviere, President
Chicago Principals and Administrators Assocation



CPS’s Redacted FOIA Appeal Documents

Original Elementary School Appeal Document

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