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State backs off plan to change special ed class sizes

Illinois State Board EducatiChairman Gery Chico right  State Superintendent EducatiChristopher Koch discussed state test scores number schools thmissed Adequate

Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico, right, and State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch discussed state test scores, the number of schools that missed Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and the status of Illinois’ request for a waiver from the AYP requirements of No Child Left Behind at the Thompson Center Tuesday Oct. 30, 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 23, 2014 6:22AM

A proposal to eliminate statewide class-size restrictions for special education students was killed on Tuesday, in the wake of a Chicago Sun-Times spotlight on the proposal, its potential impact and vast opposition to it.

“We’re not going to hear this matter tomorrow. We pulled it from our agenda,” Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico told the Sun-Times, after simple notice to that effect appeared on board’s website.

“And because we’re not going to hear it, that means the proposed rule change is going to expire, and that effectively it’s dead,” Chico said.

Sources told the Sun-Times that members of the nine-member board appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn had long expressed concerns similar to those raised in the article. Some board members said they feared the potential impact to learning and to teaching for both special ed and general education students if school districts increased the size of self-contained special ed classes — or the size of general ed classes where those students are included.

The proposal would have allowed school districts to set their own limits for any classes involving special ed students. On the state board’s agenda as late as Friday, it was set to be voted on by the full board on Wednesday at its monthly meeting.

On Tuesday morning, a brief note on the agency’s website: “NOTE: Part 226 (Special Education) (class size/composition) WILL NOT be discussed at the January Board Meeting,” was the only indication a reversal was pending.

“I’d like to commend the Illinois State Board of Education for doing what was right for all Illinois students today,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “Thousands of teachers, school staff, and parents voiced their concerns. The State Board listened. I appreciate their leadership, particularly that of Chairman Gery Chico, who listened thoughtfully, considered all sides of the issue, and made a tough decision.”

The proposal would have repealed size limits for self-contained special ed classes along with the state’s 70/30 rule limiting the ratio of special ed students in any general education class to 30 percent. It would have been the first time since enactment of federal law governing special education that Illinois operated without set limits on those class sizes.

Introduced by State Schools Supt. Christopher Koch a year ago, the changes were opposed by teachers and parents concerned that special ed students would be dumped into larger classes with fewer staff or staff ill-equipped to serve them. Even after soliciting public feedback and receiving nearly 6,000 comments — over 90 percent opposed — Koch pushed forward.

The proposal had galvanized the state’s teachers unions — including the Chicago Teachers Union — which maintained that local school districts couldn’t be trusted to set their own limits, particularly as teachers and parents have seen class sizes generally growing in recent years because of state cuts to public school funding and local districts’ financial straits.

“We had nearly 6,000 comments, over 90 percent of them opposed. We are pulling the proposal,” Chico reiterated. “This proposal goes back a year now, and by law, the time will have expired to adopt this rule, so it will die. If staff wanted to put it forth again, they would have to write another proposal. I do not believe that’s going to happen.”

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman

Twitter: @Maudlynei

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