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Kadner: Caps on special-ed classes may end

Teacher Dorothy Rouse conducts class with student special educatiprogram  HighlElementary School Elgin. January 18 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

Teacher Dorothy Rouse conducts class with student in special education program at Highland Elementary School in Elgin. January 18, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 11, 2013 6:55AM



Illinois soon may eliminate restrictions on the size of special-education classes in public schools.

The state board of education voted 5 to 1 last month to propose eliminating the mandate, subject to public hearings.

Local school districts would be free to adopt a maximum limit for self-contained, special-education classrooms. They could also increase the number of special-education children in general-education classes, which is now restricted to a maximum of 30 percent special-education students.

The proposed rule change is subject to a 45-day public comment period before adoption and will also go before the state’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Hearings are likely because groups such as The ARC of Illinois, an advocacy organization for the disabled, oppose the measure.

Some critics contend that the board of education is proposing less stringent standards as a cost-saving measure, anticipating both state and federal cuts in education funding. That view is supported in an analysis of the impacts put together by the board’s staff.

“Staff acknowledges that the agency’s re-examination of class-size rules also has been prompted by the difficulty school districts have reported comply with the standards, as the state’s — and by extension, many school districts’ — fiscal condition has worsened.”

Supporters of the change say the state board has arbitrarily imposed a standard on local school districts since 1975 that is not required by the state or federal governments.

What I know from experience is that parents of disabled children have had to battle long and hard with education bureaucrats to give their children a chance at a decent quality of life.

The Illinois State Board of Education’s website says special-education disability categories include autism, the deaf, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairments and emotional disability, “which includes schizophrenia but does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.”

What the heck does that mean?

The definition of an emotional disability goes on to describe it as a “condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”

If you’re still confused, one of those “following characteristics” is described as a “general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression” and a “tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.’

Because the cost of special education can be twice that for other students, I have a problem with some of the broad categories of special education.

Nevertheless, I understand the need for small special-education classes for some mentally impaired and physically handicapped students.

At the same time, groups who advocate for special-needs children also want them mainstreamed as much as possible.

That’s why there’s currently a 70-30 general-education mandate, allowing up to 30 percent special education children in a regular classroom. But that mandate would be removed by the state board’s recent decision.

The ARC of Illinois fears that some school districts will go far beyond the 30 percent rule, allowing classes that include mostly special ed children to be taught by a general-education teacher. A school district could save a lot of money that way.

The Illinois Association of School Boards testified in favor of removing the limit on special-education class sizes.

“We believe these decisions are best left to the local school districts,” association spokesman James Russell said. “People at the local level know what their children need.”

The Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, opposes the change, claiming teachers have a difficult enough time controlling a classroom without having to deal with children who require more personalized attention.

Amanda Cerf, an Oak Lawn resident and special-education teacher in the western suburbs, emailed the SouthtownStar, protesting the changes.

“The reasoning is that they want to move away from ‘disability’ labels,” Cerf stated. “Although I appreciate the thought, it would drastically and negatively impact all classrooms.

“The students with special needs would not be serviced in the way they need, and the students without special needs would not get as much attention as needed.”

I think both of those fears are likely to be realized to some degree.

I think it’s also likely that poor school districts in Illinois, facing state funding cuts, will increase special-education class size to the max to save money.

It’s simply the path of least resistance because special-education students represent a much smaller portion of the student population.

Trying to determine what’s right, with limited resources, is not an easy thing to do.

But our society has opted time and again to give the disabled a decent shot at living an ordinary life, whether that’s through rules requiring costly changes in public transportation or public building codes.

Failing to give a special-education child the help he or she needs at an early age can cost society a lot more money down the road in government services.

I’m not qualified to say whether a 10 to 1 ratio of children requiring individualized education programs to teachers is necessary.

But there’s little doubt that special-education children can benefit from close personal attention.

I’m not sure this is the sort of thing taxpayers want when they call for cuts to wasteful government spending.

It is, however, often the result when government budgets get squeezed.



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