Special education advocates are up in arms about a state proposal to eliminate class size caps for special education rooms and let districts decide what percentage of a “general education” class can be students with disabilities.The rule changes would leave the state without maximum class sizes based on a child’s disability for the first time since 1975. CPS district spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler says that “we recently learned of this proposal and are currently reviewing it so that we understand its potential implications.”

The question of class sizes and special education classrooms is intertwined with the school closings issue in CPS.

The proposal was given preliminary approval at last week’s Illinois State Board of Education meeting, will go out for a 45-day public comment period in the coming weeks, then would be voted on by a legislative committee before becoming law.

The state is proposing rule changes partly because of unintended negative consequences of the mandates, as well as “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 past several years,” according to the Illinois State Board of Education agenda packet.

Currently, class sizes are limited based on the percentage of time a student spends receiving special education services.

Students with mild disabilities who spend less than 20 percent of their time in special ed must be in pull-out classes with 15 or fewer students (or 17 with a paraprofessional), while those with more severe disabilities who receive special education classes at least 60 percent of the time must be in classes with no more than eight students (13 with a paraprofessional). In preschool, special education classes are limited to five students, or 10 with a paraprofessional.

ISBE says it is finding that class size limits “can diminish the ability of the school districts to make decisions based on the needs of each student with a disability” and make it harder to implement co-teaching (where general education and special education teachers work side by side.) Lifting the caps, Wednesday’s agenda packet notes, could allow special needs students to enroll in a greater variety of course offerings.

The Illinois State Advisory Council on the Education of Children with Disabilities opposes the rule changes, the packet notes, but the Illinois Principals Association, Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators and Illinois Association of School Business Officials support them.

Kristine Mayle, financial secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union and a former special education teacher, testified against the proposed changes. She says she is concerned because even now, class size limits “are never really upheld in CPS.” Recently, she says, the union filed a grievance on behalf of a teacher who has 24 students in her self-contained classroom, when by law she should have eight.

Mayle worries that if the rules change, CPS could “stack all of our rooms with 25 kids, and save a ton of money that way.”

What is more, the union’s recent contract includes for the first time the right to file a grievance when special education class sizes are bigger than state law allows. If the law is changed, that right could become meaningless.

Letting districts define “general education”

The state also wants to eliminate the requirement for a general education classroom to be at least 70 percent students without disabilities – known as the “70/30 rule” – due to concerns that some school districts were increasing their general education class sizes to meet it. An earlier attempt to change this rule, in 2006, was stopped by a public outcry.

At the moment, CPS would not be affected by the change in the definition of because it still remains under the decree, which allows general education classes in Chicago to include up 40 percent special ed students. However, CPS would like to get released from the decree and could be within the year.

Gineen O’Neil, president of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education, says her organization supports eliminating the definition of a general education classroom. “Is a general education class defined by who is sitting in it? Or is it defined by what curriculum is taught, the rigor in it?” she asks.

But Margie Wakelin, a staff attorney for the disability rights organization Equip for Equality, is concerned that general education teachers won’t be able to faithfully implement students’ Individualized Education Programs if they have too many students with disabilities in a class.

“There is a significant body of research about the benefits of inclusive education in a general education setting,” Wakelin says. “If there no longer is a rule such as 70-30 there is a fear that those experiences won’t be available for a lot of students.”

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