Tuesday, January 21, 2014

ISBE backs off special ed changes

By Caitlin Rydinsky

The State Board of Education has abandoned its efforts to make controversial changes to statewide special education policy.

The board was considering, for the second time, a proposal to eliminate restrictions on the number of special education students that can be placed in general education courses. The current rule allows no more than 30 percent of the classroom to be students in special education programs, except those who receive speech services. The board was also looking into eliminating caps on the number of students in special education classes. That number is currently based on the level of accommodation needed by students and is generally capped at 15 students.

The so-called 70/30 rule was set in a court order, which stopped applying to ISBE in 2012. Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Board of Education, said the board was revisiting the rule to try to give special education students access to more classes, such as advanced math and foreign language courses. She said ISBE has a responsibility to ensure that such students “gain a free and appropriate education with no restrictions to their education.”

Last school year, 251,114 Illinois students had an individual learning plan to accommodate special needs. Of those students, 134,381, or 53.5 percent, spent more than 80 percent of the day in general education classes. “This is where (the State Board of Education) wants to see improvement,” Fergus said in a written statement. “However, if you are looking at the national average for the category of students with IEP (Individualized Education Program) spending 80 percent or greater of their day in the general education setting, you will find that Illinois is well below the national average of 62.8 percent.”

But educators, organizations representing teachers and students, and parents vocally opposed the change. The board opted not to take up the issue at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Thursday. Illinois Education Association President Cinda Klickna, said, it was “very good (the State Board of Education) listened to experts, parents and educators that this won’t be a good idea.” Continuing that the “proposal was not geared to students in our view, but how to save money,” Klickna said she believes there are other ways to resolve the issue if there are districts that are having problems with class sizes. She suggested using the waiver process, which can exempt schools from mandates such as physical education and driver’s education requirements.

However, Anne Garcia, a parent of a child with Down syndrome, said the policy should stay as it is now and not vary by district. She said that if a student moves from one district to another, he or she would have a hard time adapting to the different classroom settings. Having the special education and general education class sizes managed by the state prevents such variations. “I don’t think what forced them to go down this route has gone away. I hope they find another way to protect students and teachers if the issue arises again,” said Garcia who is also the family support coordinator for the National Association for Down Syndrome.

State Superintendent Christopher Koch, who was a special education teacher, said he still supports the change. But for now, the rule will remain in place. “The board will not be taking action on rules governing special education class size and composition. … I still believe our current rules are overreaching and do not always allow for optimal placements, however, at this time we will focus on providing districts with the flexibility available through existing processes and procedures to ensure all students have access to challenging curriculum so they’re prepared for college and careers,” he said within a Weekly Message on the State Board of Education’s website.

This week would have been the board’s last opportunity to vote to change the rule at this time. Without a vote, the proposal will have to go through the ruling making process again. Fergus said the ISBE would work on “giving districts flexibility.” One option it will consider is simplifying the waiver application process.

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