Teachers, administrators clash over special ed class sizes
By Suzanne Baker firstname.lastname@example.org January 19, 2014 7:44PM
Some local educators are expressing concern about plans to change special education regulations that tnhey say will allow larger class sizes in Illinois. | Sun-Times Media file
Updated: February 21, 2014 6:14AM
The debate over special education class sizes pits teachers against administrators and leaves parents of children with special needs caught in the middle.
Teachers fear larger class sizes will preclude them from effectively meeting requirements such as the Common Core State Standards, while administrators say easing the rule gives students with special needs the same access to educational opportunities as their abled classmates.
Parents are left to wonder how far local school districts will go to save money.
A plan before the Illinois State Board of Education would give local school districts control over the sizes of special education classes.
The proposal to change what is formally known as state administrative Rule Part 226 calls for lifting the statewide limits on special education class sizes and on the percentage of students with disabilities in a general education class. The exact wording of the proposal has yet to be introduced, but it is expected to be discussed at ISBE’s January meeting scheduled Wednesday and Thursday in Springfield.
The earliest a vote would be taken is Thursday, according to ISBE spokesman Mary Fergus.
Fergus said removing class size requirements would allow more special education students to get into mainstream classrooms. “We want to be meeting students’ needs versus meeting a ratio,” she said.
Fergus said Illinois is among the worst in the nation when it comes to the number of students learning in a setting that is at or near a general education classroom. “The elimination of state requirements specific to class size will best ensure that each student with disabilities is placed in the least-restrictive environment, as directed by his or her Individualized Education Program (IEP), and has access to the broad array of coursework available to his or her non-disabled peers, particularly in the middle grades and high school,” according to ISBE documents.
Removing all classroom limits has the support of the Illinois Principals Association, Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, and Illinois Association of School Business Officials.
Opposition to the rule change continues to grow as more people get word of it.
Two of Illinois largest teachers’ unions — the Illinois Teachers Federation and the Illinois Education Association — started a massive social media and letter-writing campaign this past week to alert teachers and parents of the impact of the changes.
Kathryn Castle, president of the Elgin Teachers Association, said the association has been getting the word out through electronic media and taking opportunities to share with parents who have been active in special education rights causes.
The loosened limited were first proposed in February 2013 and addressed at the June meetings. Castle said most teachers thought the issue was tabled indefinitely because of the overwhelming public response. ISBE received more than more than 5,000 comments, of which 93 percent opposed the plan.
Castle said even if the proposal is approved by the ISBE, it still needs the approval of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a legislative oversight committee created to review of administrative rules promulgated by state agencies.
The legislative panel is chaired by state Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, and Rep. Timothy Schmitz, R-Geneva, and includes state Sens. Tony Munoz, D-Chicago; Sue Rezin, R-Peru; Dale Righter, R-Mattoon; and Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago; and state Reps. Gregory Harris, D-Chicago; Louis Lang, D-Skokie; David Leitch, R-Peoria; Donald Moffitt, R-Galesburg; and Andre Thapedi, D-Chicago. Mark A. Bailey, president of the Naperville Unit Education Association, said districts might initially save money by increasing special education class sizes and eliminating what is referred to the “70-30 rule” (no more than 30 percent special education students per class). “In the long run, schools are going to end up adding additional services, which is going to cost money,” Bailey said.
“The bottom line is that it’s not what’s best for our special needs students. It’s not what’s best for our regular ed students,” he said.
Parents weigh in
Parents of special education students fear how the new rules might be implemented.
Wanda Malone, a parent of a student with special needs in the Aurora-based Indian Prairie School District 204, said she is worried about the overall effect of eliminating class size limits. “From a parent’s perspective, I can’t see this as beneficial,” she said.
“Our district does a good job trying to include all kids as much as possible. The district is very conscious about the needs of students,” Malone said. “I don’t see our district would go that way.”
But that might not be the case in school districts facing a budget crunch, Malone said.
When faced with a budget cuts, Malone said, it would be easy for a district to fill a general education classroom with more than 30 percent IEP students or even lump all IEP students who don’t have class size restrictions into one room. She said the issue is not just a special education problem but a big-picture issue that could affect regular classrooms and the teaching staff.
In a joint letter to the ISBE, IEA President Cinda Klickna and ITF President Dan Montgomery said instead of accomplishing the ISBE goals, the changes would allow district-level decisions to place teachers in a position where they cannot provide all necessary services to their students.
With teachers’ plates already filled by Common Core and mandated performance evaluations, “replacing the current state expectations for class size with over 860 vastly differing staffing plans across the state sends a contradictory message to school districts and our members, while placing a substantial added burden on teaching and learning that would have a significant negative impact our students,” their letter says.