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updated: 2/20/2013 7:17 PM

State considers repealing class size limits for special ed

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With the aim of allowing local school districts more discretion to stretch tight budgets, the state board of education is proposing doing away with class size limits for special education students.

The proposal, presented at a meeting Tuesday, said local schools should determine what's appropriate, relying on Individualized Education Plans that are in place for each special education student.

"School districts, rather than the state board, should determine the personnel needed to effectively respond to the needs expressed in each student's IEP," the report says.

While school districts set their own class size limits for general education classes, currently the state caps special education class sizes based on the percent of services students receive each the day.

For instance, classes where students receive between 20 percent and 60 percent of special education services each day must have a 10-to-1 student teacher ratio. Classes of students whose school day is made of more than 60 percent special education services must have an 8-to-1 student teacher ratio.

And special education classes for children ages 3 to 5 must have a 5-to-1 student teacher ratio.

Some suburban districts favor the proposal, at least at first glance.

"In general, our district supports any proposals that provide us flexibility in how we allocate resources," Elgin Area School District U-46 Chief of Staff Tony Sanders said. However, he added, school officials would need to review the proposal.

The state owes $15 million to U-46 for this school year. Of that, $4.8 million is special education reimbursement.

The Illinois Association of School Administrators and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials support the change.

"We ask the state board to allow school districts to make decisions based on the historic deficits that we are looking at," IASA field director Bill Phillips said. "This is one place where the state board can relieve the stress without hurting the special education population and their access to education."

Representatives from the state's major teachers unions spoke against the change.

The Illinois Educators Association raised concerns about overloading teachers at a time when under state law their evaluations now are tied to student performance.

Robin Steans, executive director of the education policy and advocacy group Advance Illinois, advocated for an informed discussion about the real effects of current special education class size requirements.

If the current requirements are not proving effective, Steans said, "that's a lot of money districts could be spending in ways that have more demonstrable impact -- including for special needs students."

Special education funding, she added, "is understandably an emotional issue."

The board meeting kicks off a review process with a decision to be made by the state board in a month.

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