State board to vote again on class size limits for special ed students

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UPDATE: As of Tuesday Jan. 21, the Illinois State Board of Education has pulled the issue of special education class size rules from its agenda.

Spokeswoman Mary Fergus says that the proposed rules, which first went out for public comment about a year ago, will expire and cannot be brought back before the board. 

But, Fergus says, the state “will try to work on giving districts flexibility so that all students can have access to the most rigorous classes.”

A year after the Illinois State Board of Education first proposed eliminating special education class size rules, it is expected to bring the issue back for a final vote at its two-day meeting next week. 

Since the change was first proposed, Chicago Public Schools has been released from a consent decree that had governed the district’s special education policy, meaning the rule changes would now apply fully to the district.

If approved, the proposal would go to a legislative committee before becoming law, says state board spokeswoman Mary Fergus.

“We had three public hearings, a webinar, we published the rules, they went out for public comment, and we are still even now looking over that feedback and determining how we want to go forward,” Fergus said shortly before the agenda was published.

But it’s not clear yet exactly what the board will be voting on Thursday. An agenda packet posted late Friday afternoon only had a blank placeholder page where the proposed rules would go.

In a twist on the previous proposal – which would have eliminated altogether rules governing class size and the percentage of students in general education classrooms who may have disabilities – the state board also floated a proposal to the the Illinois State Advisory Council on the Education of Children with Disabilities that would have individual districts create their own policies on the issue, and submit them to the state. 

Last year, the state board cited a worsening fiscal climate as one reason for the proposed change. But Fergus says budget issues are not behind the board’s proposal. She argues that the rules restrict which classes students with disabilities can take, particularly a provision that states that the percentage of students with disabilities must be capped at 30 percent in general education classrooms.

“We had public hearings across the state and I remember people talking about how their students with disabilities couldn’t get into some classes because that 70-to-30 ratio was too limiting,” Fergus says. “They couldn’t get in the broad array of coursework that is possible for non-disabled students.”

She adds: “We don’t rank well in terms of the number or percent of students in what the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act calls the least-restrictive environment, and that standing is the reason we are pushing for these rules. Illinois is among just a handful of states that sets regulations on class size and ratio for students with disabilities. Most states allow local districts to best decide their needs and resources.”

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, Illinois Education Association and Chicago Teachers Union are all opposed to the proposal.

On Friday, the Chicago Teachers Union issued a press release stating that more than 100 special education positions in the district are still vacant, leaving students without services. The union has also pointed out that eliminating the state rules would prevent teachers from using new contract language that allows them to file grievances when special education class sizes exceed state limits.