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posted: 5/10/2013 5:30 AM

Hearing prompts passionate testimony on special ed rule change

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Special education teachers and parents from across the region spoke out against proposed school rule changes Thursday during a public hearing hosted by the state board of education.

At the same hearing, four administrators spoke in favor of the changes, saying the rules now restrict local districts from making decisions that work best for their students.

The Illinois State Board of Education is proposing to eliminate a rule that says no more than 30 percent of a general education classroom can be special education students. This is commonly referred to as the 70/30 rule.

The state board is also considering eliminating a rule capping special education class sizes, which vary based on the severity of students' disabilities.

About two dozen people spoke during the three-hour hearing at Elgin Community College. Four of them spoke in favor of the rule changes.

Judy Hackett, superintendent of the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization, said there are times when the rule limits the opportunities of students, especially in smaller schools. She said statewide rules are not the answer.

"Class-size regulations do not create assurances or greater accountability that students will get what they need," Hackett said. "A team of administrators and staff planning and implementing solid educational practices do."

Cindy Phelps, director of student services and special education for Palatine Elementary District 15, also took issue with the fact that the 70/30 rule does not distinguish among students who get extra support because of minor organizational issues versus severe cognitive disabilities.

Arguing the other side, Hoffman Estates High School teacher Derek Fivelson said repeal of the rules will lower the quality of education for general and special education students. He criticized the state board of education for suggesting the change.

"Whoever came up with this idea should quit," Fivelson said, adding that the job of the state board is to make Illinois education the best it can be. "This doesn't do it."

Carrie James, a special-education teacher and member of several state organizations dedicated to students with disabilities, said the rules were put in place as a protection for students. She suggested maintaining the current rules but giving the state board the job of reviewing waiver requests on a case-by-case basis.

James said she understood the argument for local control but worried cash-strapped districts would make decisions based on finances over the needs of students, regardless of their best intentions.

Elgin's hearing was one of three held throughout the state in addition to a public comment period that closed April 22. The staff at the state board will consider the testimony and make a recommendation to board members who will vote on the rule changes. A timeline for those actions has not been decided.

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