Legislators returned home after the last day of the legislative session Friday. You can meet with them in their local office to discuss the Anti Closure House Resolution 273.Legislators did pass a state budget that supports the Governor’s Rebalancing Initiative and pays down provider bills. The new state budget will be discussed Wednesday at the Executive Forum with Director Casey..

Tonight I am off to Chicago to join with Governor Quinn and other advocates to celebrate the passage of our Employment First legislation at Access Living’s Annual Dinner!

Excellent story from today’s Chicago Tribune on the State Board’s efforts to eliminate class sizes for special education.


New rules for special ed?

State educators may expand class size, push for more disabled students to join mainstream classes
By Diane Rado Tribune reporter 
Decades-old limits on the size of special education classes would disappear along with restrictions on the number of disabled students in traditional classrooms under proposals being pushed by state education leaders.

The proposed changes could affect students both with and without disabilities in virtually every public school in Illinois and open the door for more disabled students in mainstream classes — a key goal of federal special education law, state officials say.

As it stands now, Illinois has one of the worst records in the country for ensuring that special education students get substantial time with their nondisabled peers, a Tribune analysis of federal records shows.

The proposals, expected to be discussed in June and voted on in August by the Illinois State Board of Education, have generated an unprecedented response — much of it critical. Those who fear class sizes will increase, special education teachers and aides will be laid off, and children will be hurt have bombarded state officials with thousands of letters and comments.

“I think this is all about the almighty dollar and everyone is trying to fiscally cut where they can,” said Jeanine Everitt-Beaver, whose 10-year-old twins attend Mt. Greenwood School in Chicago but learn mostly in different settings.

Her disabled son spends most of the day in a special education class of five students, she said, while his nondisabled twin attends traditional classes. Special education classes generally are limited by the state from five to 15 students, depending on their needs.

Illinois’ poor showing in getting special education students into mainstream classrooms is a key reason officials want to eliminate class-size requirements. The change, they say, will allow more disabled children to succeed alongside their nondisabled peers.

State School Superintendent Christopher Koch said state-dictated class sizes can cause districts to focus on numbers when the emphasis should be on broader issues and goals for special education children.

“These kind of (class size and makeup) restrictions are sending the wrong messages,’’ said Koch, who suggests local districts should make class size and staffing decisions.

Koch, who has been a special education teacher, said most of the state’s special education children do not have severe impairments and therefore should be in traditional classes as much as possible.

“I want (special education) parents to be asking, ‘How are my kids getting access to English, foreign languages, math and science?’ What is their access to the (general education) curriculum? That is what will help them into a career and into college.”

Illinois has more than 250,000 students with a variety of disabilities — almost 14 percent of public school enrollment — according to the most recent state and federal data. The majority are in the Chicago area.

While acknowledging some school districts face serious financial challenges, state education officials say that is not the key motive behind the push for change.

The proposals are supported by a number of major statewide education organizations, including school boards and administrators.

Roger Eddy, a former school superintendent and state lawmaker who now heads the Illinois Association of School Boards, said he trusts local districts to make decisions on classroom sizes and staff.

“I don’t think districts are going to create an environment that hurts kids,” Eddy said.

Patience and empathy

On the other side are parents, educators and special education advocates, who have been giving impassioned speeches at recent public hearings. The state education board has received some 5,500 comments so far on the proposed changes — a record number, officials say.

Even if approved, the changes would have to be reviewed by a special legislative committee, which has the power to block them. If the committee gives the go-ahead, the changes would take effect in early to late fall, state education officials say.

Meanwhile, distrust is high, and opponents predict that struggling districts will increase class sizes and cut special education teachers and aides if the proposals go through.

State education officials also propose ending a requirement that a teacher’s aide be assigned when special education classes exceed certain limits.

In Everitt-Beaver’s case, one of her sons has a syndrome that affects his physical health as well as an autism-related condition. He spends most of the school day in special education, but also attends some general classes, such as music, she said.

Everitt-Beaver expressed concern the boy would struggle in potentially larger classes and that his non-disabled twin might not get the attention he needs if more special education students are assigned to his classroom.

In Kane County, Hrisi Perri’s fifth-grade son has mild autism and attends Prairie View Grade School in Burlington-based Central Community Unit School District 301. Perri, a special education teacher in Rock-ford, says the state’s proposals would lead to cuts in teachers and paraprofessionals and be harmful to students. Perri started an Internet petition that has more than 650 signatures, she said. “I see this as a civil rights issue,” she said. It’s a gut-wrenching debate for parents concerned about the academic needs of both disabled and non-disabled children.

Chris Newlon’s third-grade daughter has Down syndrome and attends Valley View Elementary School in District 15 in McHenry County. She has attended general education classes and has been assisted by an aide.

The child has done well, but Newlon says she is concerned about how her daughter and others would fare if the state abolishes limits on how many special education students can attend general classes.

“I’m afraid that some teachers will become overwhelmed and will not be able to meet the children’s needs,” Newlon said.

But Newlon, who has four other children, also suggests that increasing the number of special needs students in a classroom may benefit the nondisabled.

“It teaches them patience and empathy,” she said.

Local districts told the Tribune they would proceed cautiously if the proposals were approved.

Connie Simon, who oversees special education in Barrington Community Unit School District 220, said class sizes may go up, but “would they grow exponentially? Probably not.”

At the district’s Sunny Hill Elementary School, 28 percent of students have disabilities of some kind — more than double the state average — with many facing speech and language challenges.

All of them are blended into traditional classes, said Principal Irma Bates.

“You wouldn’t know” which children have disabilities and which do not, Bates said.

Class size debate

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has no specific requirements on special education class sizes, and the matter is left up to states, according to the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Some states have no class size limits while Illinois has had them for nearly 40 years.

A survey by the organization also shows that few states have rules on how many special education children can be in traditional or “general education” classes, making Illinois’ requirements very unusual, experts say.

The federal government monitors how well states blend special education students into general classes, with a key measure being the percent of students with disabilities in mainstream classes 80 percent or more of the day. In that analysis, Illinois ranks below the national average and 45th in the nation, which includes Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, according to fall 2011 federal data.

Illinois generally limits the number of special needs children in a traditional classroom to no more than 30 percent — which some local officials say is difficult to meet, especially for high school classes.

Under certain circumstances, Chicago Public Schools can have a general classroom be composed of up to 40 percent special needs children, an exception stemming from a special education lawsuit filed in the early 1990s.

Because of that lawsuit, state board of education officials say CPS would have to maintain its percentages for general classes, at least temporarily, even if state rules are changed — though not everyone agrees.

Chicago Teachers Union Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle is a special education teacher. Mayle posted on the union website that changing those rules “will give CPS free reign to overstuff classes with special education students without providing the necessary supports.”

Parents of CPS special education students recently filed federal lawsuits against the district over school closings that they say would harm their children. The union is supporting those cases. CPS officials said they are “monitoring discussions” over the state board’s proposal but have said little beyond that.

Rodney Estvan, a Chicago special education advocate and policy analyst, opposes the state’s plan.

Wealthy parents will have the means to fight, he said, so affluent districts are likely to make minimal changes.

But in districts with poor families, administrators are likely to increase class sizes and eliminate teacher aides, he said.

“In poorer districts,” he said, “they will push the limits.”

Freelance reporter Suzanne Burdett contributed. drado@tribune.com


Third-graders gather for reading time at Sunny Hill Elementary School in Carpentersville. About 28 percent of students in the school have Individualized Education Programs, which is special education instruction, but are integrated into general education classrooms.

Tony Paulauski
Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423
815-464-1832 (OFFICE)
815-464-1832 (CELL)