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Teachers, parents fear proposal to lift class-size limits will hurt special ed kids

Christopher Koch is Illinois' superintendent education.  |  Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Christopher Koch is Illinois' superintendent of education. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 22, 2014 6:13AM



A proposal to eliminate class-size restrictions for special education students has galvanized the state’s teachers unions and parents who are concerned that those students will be dumped into larger classes with fewer staff or staff ill-equipped to serve them.

The Illinois State Board of Education proposal was introduced a year ago, but it was tabled after state hearings triggered a tidal wave of opposition.

The proposal would allow school districts to set their own limits for special education classes and for general education classes in which special education students are included.

The state board is set to vote on the changes at its Wednesday meeting. The board says repealing size limits for special education classes and the state’s 70/30 rule that limits the ratio of special ed students in any general education class to 30 percent, is a push toward greater inclusiveness.

“The proposed changes put the focus on meeting students’ needs rather than meeting a ratio, which in some cases actually restrict students with disabilities from entry into classes,” board spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. She noted that State Schools Supt. Christopher Koch is a former special ed teacher.

“We believe that school districts through the IEP [Individualized Education Program] process should determine locally the accommodations and modifications necessary for special ed students’ placement,” she said.

Teachers and parents who have seen class sizes generally growing in recent years — because of state cuts to public school funding and local districts’ financial straits — say higher ratios will make teaching and learning more challenging, and that both special and general education students will suffer.

“When classes are overcrowded and understaffed, all students suffer because they can’t get the attention they need,” said Dan Montgomery, a high school English teacher of 20 years and president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “With continued cuts to public education, it’s irresponsible to make it even harder for students, particularly those with special needs, to succeed. Anyone who has ever stepped into a classroom understands this, and we need to remind the State Board of Education that their continued push for this proposal would be devastating for our kids.”

If the proposal is approved, there would be no state requirement that teachers get paraprofessionals or teacher’s aides in some special ed classes based on size.

Federal law requires those students to be educated in the least restrictive environment and be provided with an Individualized Education Program specifying how a school district will meet their needs.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act offers no class-size guidelines. Illinois has operated under the Corey H. vs. Board of Education consent decree since 1999. That watershed lawsuit forced the Chicago Public Schools to meet the federal least-restrictive environment mandate and the state to promulgate statewide rules governing special ed students’ inclusion in general education classes.

“The elimination of this rule could be the worst thing to happen to our students in many years,” said Illinois Education Association President Cinda Klickna, an English teacher for more than 30 years. “We can’t continue to pile more obstacles in the path of teachers who want to help all students realize their potential. The State Board must reject this proposal.”

When the state board solicited public feedback after proposing the changes in February 2013, it received more than 5,500 comments over the course of several hearings. Of those comments, 5,158 opposed the rule changes and 365 were in favor.

In October 2012, the state board was released from the Corey H. decree.

“As such, agency staff believe that restrictions on placement decisions set forth in rule can now be eliminated,” the agency’s latest proposal states. “The elimination of state requirements specific to class size will best ensure that each student with disabilities . . . has access to the broad array of coursework available to his or her nondisabled peers, particularly in the middle grades and high school.”

If passed, the proposal would head to the Illinois Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules . If that committee approved the proposal, it would be the first time since 1975 — when federal law governing special education was first passed — that Illinois wouldn’t have limits on special ed class sizes based upon particular disabilities/needs.

Illinois is among a few states with statewide rules governing those class sizes.

The state board admits fiscal concerns underlie the proposed changes.

“The agency’s reexamination of class size rules also has been prompted by the difficulty school districts have reported complying with the standard, as the state’s – and by extension, many school districts’ — fiscal condition has worsened in the several years,” it states in its proposal. “It is important to note, however, that the proposed rule change, if promulgated, will not affect a school district’s responsibility to continue to comply with federal requirements regarding local maintenance of effort for special education.”

Unions say local school districts can’t be trusted to meet that responsibility without oversight — particularly CPS, the district that triggered the 70/30 mandate. CPS was sued by Corey H. and families of other special ed students in 1992.

Such students make up about 12 percent of CPS’ student population.

“These changes just give Chicago Public Schools, ISBE and other school districts in Illinois more opportunities to try and solve their budget crises on the backs of our most vulnerable students. We’ve seen over and over how CPS does not work within the best interests of our students,” said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

She noted that this year’s CPS budget included severe cuts in services for special ed students, including nearly $4 million in funding for autism programming — mostly because of closings of schools serving students with autism, such as Lafayette, Stockton, Herbert and Trumbull. Lewis worries that if CPS sets its own rules, special ed students could languish without appropriate services in overcrowded general education classes. CPS denies that could happen.

“The District is committed to ensuring that the needs of all diverse learners are met according to their individualized education plans,” CPS spokeswoman Keiana Barrett said. “CPS will abide by regulations set forth by ISBE and will continue to work with our union counterparts to secure an appropriate class size that meets our students’ needs.”

Under the proposed changes, CPS special ed class-size limits would be lifted. But CPS, which later was granted an exception to the state’s 70/30 mandate — reducing its required ratio to 60/40 — would remain under that ratio until discharged from Corey H., CPS and the state board note.

The debate hit the national stage in a Washington Post article last week.

An op-ed titled, “How’s this for cynical?” lambasted the proposal, asking, “Why would the state want to do this?” It noted, “Plenty of research shows that class size does, of course, matter in improving student achievement.”

The op-ed also ridiculed CPS arguments to the contrary — citing a quote in another Chicago newspaper last March in which CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll argued: “It’s the quality of teaching in that classroom. You could have a teacher that is high-quality that could take 40 kids in a class and help them succeed.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, has found class-size reduction to be one of four, evidence-based reforms proven to increase student achievement, while other studies have shown students in smaller classes in early grades do better in every measure from higher test scores to better grades and improved attendance.

Email: mihejirika@suntimes.com

Twitter: @Maudlynei



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