State board of education backs off changes in special ed class sizes

A proposal to eliminate class-size protections for students with special needs will not be voted on by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) as planned.

The ISBE was scheduled to vote on Jan. 23 to change Illinois Administrative Code 226.730, which limits the number of students in instructional special-education classrooms and the percentage of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) in general-education classrooms, which is currently capped at 30 percent. The proposal would have also eliminated the requirement that a paraprofessional be assigned to a special-education class of any size.

The ISBE cancelled the vote due to the “vast opposition of parents and teachers,” said Beverley Holden Johns, chair of the Illinois Special Education Coalition and president-elect of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois.

A vocal opponent of the proposal, Johns helped organize a campaign asking people who also opposed the changes to call or e-mail members of the ISBE with their concerns.

Beverly resident Mary Hughes was among a group of local parents who voiced their opposition of the plan to the ISBE. In an e-mail, Hughes said the proposed changes would further compromise an already “dysfunctional” Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system.

“As a special-education parent advocate, I have been witness many times to CPS’s failure to provide appropriate staffing, classroom space and services for children with special needs, even when the IEP specifies these staffings and services,” Hughes said in an e-mail to the ISBE. “The bottom line is, the ISBE cannot leave the issue of appropriate class size up to CPS to manage.”

In a joint letter from the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), officials from the two organizations also expressed their opposition to the proposal.

“Our focus should be to make educationally sound decisions,” wrote IEA President Cinda Klickna and IFT President Dan Montgomery. “The state board’s proposed staffing plan is not educationally sound and represents cuts at the expense of students’ education. It is all too likely that too many of Illinois’ 860-plus school districts—many in desperate financial straits due to prorated general state aid and potentially declining tax revenues—will see this change as a route to further cost savings at the expense of teaching, learning and student outcomes.”

Although local parents declared the cancelled ISBE vote a victory for students with special needs and their families, Illinois State Superintendent of Education Chris Koch said the state’s current rules are a disservice to some students.

In a newsletter published by the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education, President Gineen O’Neil said she received the following message from Koch on Jan. 21:

“I still believe that these regulations are overreaching and result in less than optimal—or even legal—placements for some students. The fierce resistance to these proposed changes demonstrate there is more work to do, whether it be with administrators reflecting and acting on the ‘5 Essentials Survey’ of their teachers, higher education institutions doing a better job in preparing teachers and administrators and, perhaps most importantly, in having both high expectations and adequate support for all parties who work to ensure every educational experience is the best it can be. I do hope the opponents to the rule changes realize there are no ‘winners’ with this debate unless we close achievement gaps and demonstrate academic growth for our students.”

In an e-mail, Johns said she believes the superintendent is spreading a false notion that the current rules restrict “access to the most rigorous classes.”

“When will the state superintendent admit he is wrong?” Johns said. “Why have public comment if the overwhelming comment of parents and teachers on an important public issue affecting every student and every teacher is ignored by the state superintendent of education?”

It’s the second time the proposal to eliminate the class-size restrictions was brought up for discussion by the ISBE and removed from its agenda. In February 2013, Johns said, the ISBE tabled the proposal after vocal opposition.

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