Kadner: State board eyes special ed changes

By Phil Kadner

January 20, 2014 8:22PM

FILE – This undated file photo provided by the Illinois State Board of Education shows State Schools Superintendent Christopher Koch. Koch says the state hasn’t provided enough money to institute a new education reform law that’s been praised nationwide. (AP Photo/Illinois State Board of Education, File)

Updated: January 21, 2014 2:05AM

As many as nine special education students are now allowed in a public school classroom of 30 students, but that may not be enough for the state board of education.

If you can have nine, what’s the big deal about 10, 11 or 12?

Nothing, if you think a teacher in a general education classroom with no training in special education can deal adequately with a bunch of children who have mental and emotional disorders, while teaching your child at the same time.

Changes to the rules that place a 30 percent limit on the number of special education students in a general education classroom have been placed on the agenda of the Illinois State Board of Education’s meeting this week.

It is also apparently pondering lifting limits on the size of special education-only classes.

As of late Monday afternoon, the rule change was listed as an item on the board’s agenda, but it had not posted the specific language regarding the changes up for consideration.

An attempt to change the rules last year resulted in an outpouring of public protest forcing the state board to table the issue.

“I am particularly troubled by the fact that there was nothing but a blank page in the board meeting packet marked as ‘Placeholder’ for Part 226 (the rule that governs special education),” said Margaret Carroll, a professor at St. Xavier University in Chicago who trains special education teachers.

“People who are concerned about this can’t find out what the proposed changes in the language are just days before the state board of education is to meet and the public is invited to comment,” Carroll said.

The board is scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday in Springfield.

Opponents of the changes (such as Carroll) are calling on parents and others to appear during the board’s public comment session Wednesday to voice their concerns.

Supporters of the changes, which include state Schools Supt. Christopher Koch, have said in the past that instead of the state handing down mandates, decisions should be made at the local school board level.

Local school boards, this argument goes, are in the best position to make decisions for parents and students.

But if that were always the case there would never have been a need for federal and state laws requiring special education.

This nation has celebrated for decades dramatic changes in the way society deals with mentally and physically disabled children.

However, the fact is that special education costs a lot of money and many school districts in Illinois are struggling financially.

They’re struggling, in large part, because Illinois ranks dead last in the nation in the percentage of public school funding the state provides.

Increasing the number of special education students who can take general education classes and lifting the limits on special ed classes can result in significantly lower costs for local school districts.

Right now, state rules mandate that special ed classes have no more than a certain number of students (the maximum is 15) depending on their type of disability.

There are benefits to mainstreaming special ed students.

But the fact is that parents of special education students have battled with education bureaucrats for decades to give their children a chance at something resembling a normal life.

And that begins with a decent education.

Put yourself in the place of a parent of a Down syndrome child, trying to cope with daily living challenges at home, educating friends, relatives and neighbors about the situation and then trying desperately to get the local school board to ignore its own financial difficulties to give your child a “special education.”

One of the real problems with special education, as I see it, was the expansion of the definition to include students with behavior and emotional disorders.

That has caused the number of special ed students to increase dramatically over the years, along with improved methods of diagnosing such problems. A student who has a hearing problem, for example, may develop an emotional disorder if he or she is not correctly diagnosed early on.

But some of these children are also “troubled,” perhaps due to abuse at home or other environmental factors.

It bothers me that they can get “special treatment” in school while children who behave well may be stuffed into overcrowded classrooms.

On the other hand, I realize that spending some extra money early on in life can prove cost efficient if it means avoiding a lifetime of incarceration. And shouldn’t we try to help a child who is abused in his or her home?

I don’t doubt that some reform in special education is needed.

But cost shouldn’t be the primary factor that drives these decisions.

This state is already divided into “have” and “have not” school districts because public education is primarily financed by property taxes.

Wealthy school districts may have student jazz ensembles and chamber orchestras, while poorer ones cut band and music.

In that environment, the wealthiest districts will continue to offer smaller class sizes for both general education and special ed students, while the financially struggling districts will naturally try to cut costs.

“What’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness mean to a child?” Carroll said. “A child spends 8 to 12 hours a day in school. That school gives him a chance at a productive future, an opportunity to pursue happiness. I don’t see how you can deny a child that opportunity.”

I don’t know what the limit on special education children in a classroom ought to be, but 30 percent seems pretty high.

And if you ever reach 50 percent, well, that’s no longer a general education classroom, even if it is taught by a regular school teacher.

Speak Your Mind