Though financial issues are at the heart of many state legislative races this fall, Republican state Sen. Dan Duffy of Lake Barrington and Democratic challenger Amanda Howland of Lake Zurich both see special-needs funding as a key social issue.
The two 26th District rivals have different personal approaches to how the state can improve the lives of families with special-needs members.
Howland, a former special needs teacher, believes the state has been moving in the right direction through its growing sophistication in the diagnosis of autism and other developmental disabilities among children.
Her experience in special education would be an asset to the legislature's in this area, she added.
Howland said she's seen the philosophy of special education swing like a pendulum from near total exclusion to near total inclusion of special needs children in the mainstream curriculum.
The best approach, she said, seems to be somewhere in between. Though the goal of providing as much inclusion as possible is a good one, she said a teacher with a full classroom of students can't be expected to address all the requirements of a special-needs child.
Howland said funding for special-needs programs can't just be put on hold while legislators grapple with the long-term problems of the budget and public pensions. The goal, she said, should be to make everyone a productive, contributing member of society in their own way.
"I'm in favor of protecting those who are the most vulnerable," Howland said. "I want to make sure we protect those people because if we don't, it's going to cost us more."
Duffy said he recognizes that special-needs citizens -- from the youngest children to seniors -- as among those most in need of government assistance.
But as he often tells advocates, it's impossible to separate the funding they get from the "black hole" that is the state's public pension system.
"Until we solve that pension problem, we're going to continue to not have enough money for these special-needs programs," Duffy said.
He said he doesn't blame, but rather feels sympathy for, teachers and other public employees who didn't cause the pension problem. Blame, he said, belongs with government leaders who've mismanaged the system.
Duffy said hard decisions must be made and made soon, which he believes should include raising the retirement age and reducing cost of living adjustments for pensioners.
The goal, he said, is to get Illinois' finances back to a place where legislators can again entertain requests for the funding of social programs.
And while he believes special-needs programs are among the most critical, Duffy said he recognizes there are voices who criticize the spending of public funds for such social programs.
"I'm elected to make the decisions I feel are just and accurate and right," Duffy said.
The 26th District lies toward the southwest corner of Lake County and the southeast corner of McHenry County, and includes the Barrington area and all or parts of Algonquin, Gurnee, Island Lake, Long Grove and Libertyville.