Illinois tables plan to allow bigger special ed classes

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The Illinois State Board of Education has stepped back from a proposal to eliminate class size protections for special education students, a decision praised by Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery.

"I'd like to commend the Illinois State Board of Education for doing what was right for all Illinois students today," Montgomery said. "Thousands of teachers, school staff and parents voiced their concerns, and the state board listened. I appreciate their leadership, particularly that of Chairman Gery Chico, who listened thoughtfully, considered all sides of the issue and made a tough decision."

The IFT and the Illinois Education Association strongly opposed the ISBE's plan to remove class size protections for students with disabilities, which would have resulted in no statewide limits on special education class sizes, no limits on the percentage of students with disabilities that can be placed in a general education class, and no regulations requiring paraprofessionals for certain special education class sizes.

Currently, Illinois regulates the number of students in special education classrooms, based on the level of students' disabilities and the intensity of services required; these elements determine whether a paraprofessional is required in the classroom as well. Had the proposal been passed, classrooms could have had as many students as could be packed in, and any requirements for paraprofessionals would have disappeared. In too many places, that would have meant that Illinois paraprofessionals would have lost their jobs, and the quality of education available to special needs students would have plummeted.

"The elimination of this rule could be the worst thing to happen to our students in many years," said IEA President Cinda Klickna, who spent more than 30 years as an English teacher. "We can't continue to pile more obstacles in the path of teachers who want to help all students realize their potential. For the good of the students, the state board must reject this proposal."

The state unions sent a joint letter to the ISBE stating their opposition to the plan and mounted a "Class Size Matters" campaign that encouraged teachers, parents and concerned citizens to contact the state board of education and legislators to remind them that "big classes are a big mistake." An overwhelming number of educators and others responded on social media.

"I am enormously proud of our members, who took action and who know better than anyone that students—especially those with disabilities—suffer when classrooms are overcrowded and understaffed," said Montgomery, who is also an AFT vice president.

This was not the ISBE's first attempt to pack more students into Illinois classrooms. The board announced its intention to remove all state requirements on class size for students with special needs in February 2013, and voted unanimously to solicit public feedback. They received more than 5,000 comments, 93 percent of which opposed the plan.

Last spring, Chicago Public Schools argued against compelling research to the contrary, stating that big classes don't hamper learning, and suggested putting 40 kids in a classroom.

"The state and local districts cannot and should not balance their budgets on the backs of our most vulnerable students," said Chicago Teachers Union Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle, who is also a special education teacher. "ISBE has been disingenuous for the reasons of these proposed changes, saying that it's about protecting students when it will wind up hurting hundreds of thousands of our children across Illinois. Special education students need one-on-one attention, smaller groups to learn in and instruction that is tailored to their specific needs. This rule will prevent that in both special education and general education classrooms alike." [IFT press release, Roger Glass]

January 23, 2014