The State of Illinois caps the number of high needs learners who share the attention of a single special education teacher.
For the past decade, there has also been a limit on how many children with disabilities can be placed in what are known as “general education” public school classrooms.
But those rules could soon be repealed.
The mother of a young man with autism has joined advocates for the disabled who say the proposed change has to do more with cost-savings than with properly educating kids.
FARNSWORTH: “My name is George Farnsworth.”
REPORTER: “How old are you, George?
FARNSWORTH: “I’m 13 years old.”
George Farnsworth of Chatham was diagnosed with autism before his 2nd birthday. He is “profoundly affected” by the disorder and is years behind other kids his age in communication skills, social and emotional development – not to mention science, reading or math.
That’s where teacher Carrie Howell comes in. In her “self-contained” classroom at Glenwood Intermediate School, she’s able to devote at least 2 hours of each day to George’s 1-on-1 instruction.
HOWELL: “You will see them pick up a skill twice as fast, you will see them flourish and they will feel so much better about themselves. So if our class sizes grow to the point where we can’t always put ourselves out there as much as we’d like, I do worry about what that would look like… that’s where it could be really detrimental to our students.”
George’s mother Mary – herself a special education teacher – said at a State hearing in Springfield that lifting the cap on class size limits could put her son at risk of losing services.
FARNSWORTH: “I’m not expecting him to become a rocket scientist tomorrow. I am expecting him to be allowed to perform at his best and to receive all the services that he’s entitled to… that these students deserve and are legally entitled to. They do not deserve to pushed aside because of bureaucracy, budgets and time restraints.”
Since the 1970s disabled children have been – according to federal law – entitled to a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” possible. But they haven’t always gotten that in Illinois.
In a class action lawsuit known as the “Corey H.” case in the 1990s, a federal judge ruled that Chicago schools segregated the disabled – and found the State failed for years to adequately monitor and report this.
The state adopted a “70/30 Rule” for gen ed classrooms in the wake of that lawsuit, with the court looking over its shoulder. It set aside, in other words, up to 6 seats in a class of 20 – just for special needs learners.
Before Christopher Koch became Superintendent of Education, he helped the State clean up after the Corey H. case and open classrooms to the disabled. Today he says the State has come a long way and it monitors schools better. He says kids will still get the personalized instruction ordered by the federal government if the state rolls back what he calls “artificial, one-size-fits-all policies”.
KOCH: “The services to the students, per their ‘Individual Education Plans’ are going to remain unchanged. The issue is really, is it appropriate for the state to be setting class limits, class size limits. I don’t think that’s an appropriate role for the state. I believe that’s an appropriate local decision.”
Superintendent Koch says the change will help close the achievement gap for those who learn differently and wants to give principals and administrators more flexibility to choose how students are placed in classes.
Rod Estvan, however, calls that flexibility argument disingenuous. Estvan is a former teacher and worked for the court as it was monitoring and reforming Chicago schools following the Corey H. case. He now lobbies at the state level as an advocate for the disabled.
ESTVAN: “To argue that this is flexibility for flexibility’s purposes, when they’re going before the House Education Appropriations Committee and declaring the fiscal crisis of districts and asking for more money because the districts need this money to survive… I think that’s the driver and I think there’s a certain level of disingenuousness in arguing that this is just about flexibility. This is about cost-savings.”
Estvan says removing caps for special needs classrooms could, for example, allow a local school board to cut a special ed teacher position to pay for bus service, a football program or any other budget priority.
He believes that the State may be bending to pressure from school districts facing tough fiscal choices.
Mary Farnsworth also thinks it comes down to dollars and cents. She says she would rather have a frank discussion about districts’ financial problems than see the repeal of what she considers years of progress on behalf of children with disabilities.
FARNSWORTH: “Somebody somewhere is going to have to sacrifice part of their learning or their time. We’re not really seeing a win for anybody - as a parent, an educator or as a student who may be subjected to these rule changes.”
The State Board of Education meets in June to consider the proposed changes, which could impact classrooms as early as this fall.