Illinois Mulls Changes To Special Education Class Size Limits

A proposal by the Illinois State Board of Education to eliminate class-size restrictions for special education is up for a vote after being tabled a year ago due to concerns that these students would be put into classes that were ill staffed and too large to serve them properly. If the proposal passes, school districts will be allowed to set limits for special education and general education classes. The state board says the proposal, which would change the limit for special education students in a classroom from a maximum of 30%, pushes schools towards being more inclusive and would be a positive change. Board spokeswoman Mary Fergus said:

 "The proposed changes put the focus on meeting students' needs rather than meeting a ratio, which in some cases actually restrict students with disabilities from entry into classes. We believe that school districts through the IEP [Individualized Education Program] process should determine locally the accommodations and modifications necessary for special ed students' placement,"

Maudlyne Ihejirika writes in The Chicago Sun-Times that teachers and parents disagree. They say that both special and general education students will suffer because the higher ratios will make teaching and learning more challenging.

Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, says that he believes overcrowding causes students to not get the attention they need due to understaffing.

"With continued cuts to public education, it's irresponsible to make it even harder for students, particularly those with special needs, to succeed. Anyone who has ever stepped into a classroom understands this, and we need to remind the State Board of Education that their continued push for this proposal would be devastating for our kids."

The proposal would eliminate the requirement for teachers to have teachers aides in special education classrooms based on size. Federal law requires special education students to have an IEP that specifies how the school district will meet their needs.

Illinois Education Association President Cinda Klickna urges the board to reject the proposal saying that "The elimination of this rule could be the worst thing to happen to our students in many years,"

The board asked for feedback before and received 5,500 comments — 5,158 opposed and 365 approved. If the proposal passes it will head to Illinois Legislatures Joint Committee on Administrative rules where if approved it would be the first time since 1975 that Illinois will not have limits on special ed class sizes.

The state board does acknowledge that there are fiscal concerns that underlie the proposed changes.

"The agency's reexamination of class size rules also has been prompted by the difficulty school districts have reported complying with the standard, as the state's – and by extension, many school districts' — fiscal condition has worsened in the several years," it states in its proposal. "It is important to note, however, that the proposed rule change, if promulgated, will not affect a school district's responsibility to continue to comply with federal requirements regarding local maintenance of effort for special education."

Research done by the Institute of Education Services found that reduced class size has been proven to increase student achievement. The IES claims that this correlates with other studies that show students in smaller classes receive better grades, higher test scores, and have improved attendance.

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