Education services extended for students with special needs
SPRINGFIELD -- Students with special needs will be able to finish their last year of high school regardless of when their birthday falls on the calendar, while those who lost a year or more of in-person schooling due to the pandemic and have since aged out of special education eligibility will be given another year to complete their schooling.
Those changes are the result of two bills Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Wednesday while also announcing a $200 million investment of federal funds to expand the state's early childhood education workforce.
"Here in Illinois, our current special education law aligns with federal requirements," Pritzker said at one bill signing ceremony in Chicago. "But if you believe a student has the right to stay in the classroom and not be yanked out on an arbitrary day that happens to be their birthday, our current laws just haven't been good enough."
Under federal law, students with special needs who have an individualized educational program are entitled to receive special education services through age 21. For many, that means their access to education services ends on the day before their 22nd birthday, regardless of where that date falls on the school calendar.
"They've been forced to leave their school, a place of growth, a place of comfort," said Joshua Long, principal at Southside Occupational Academy High School in Chicago, a transition school for special-needs students aged 16 to 22. "And they've had to leave on some arbitrary day before their 22nd birthday, and then transition to their home, where they wait for up to 10 years for services as an adult with disabilities."
House Bill 40, by Chicago Democrats Rep. Fran Hurley and Sen. Bill Cunningham, changes that law in Illinois so that when those students turn 22, they can complete the school year and graduate at the same time as their other classmates. The new law takes effect immediately.
"This bill has a huge impact on our young adults and all families as it will facilitate a smooth transition as they exit the school system," said Anita Barraza, the parent of a special needs student. "Allowing them to stay will extend their ability to continue developing valuable life skills."
Pritzker also signed House Bill 2748, which allows special education students who turned 22 while in-person instruction was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic to remain eligible for services through the end of the 2021-2022 school year.
"The intent of this bill is really to regain some of that learning that was lost because of circumstances created by the pandemic," said Rep. Suzanne Ness, a Crystal Lake Democrat and the lead sponsor of the bill in the House. "Zoom classes were particularly difficult for this cohort of students and their families, and they were left with less options as a result. So this bill will extend that and give more opportunities to students to regain some of that learning loss, just like is going to happen for every other student in general education."
Later in the day, Pritzker signed another education-related bill while also announcing that the state would invest $200 million of federal funds to provide additional training, mentorships and scholarships to bolster the state's early childhood education workforce over the next two years.
Of that money, about $120 million will go toward financial support, including scholarships, to encourage child care workers to pursue advanced credentials, according to the governor's office. Part of the money will also provide coaches, mentors and navigators with resources to help child care workers pursue their degrees.
"We are improving the lives of children across our state by giving them a new level of quality care by upskilling our early childhood workforce," Pritzker said in a statement Wednesday. "We are providing educational opportunity for 5,600 people to earn degrees that will advance their careers. And we are advancing our pandemic economic recovery. All of these investments will pay dividends for years to come."
House Bill 2878, by Rep. Katie Stuart, an Edwardsville Democrat, and Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas, a Chicago Democrat, also seeks to bolster the state's early childhood education workforce by establishing a consortium among higher education institutions to develop ways that make it easier for child care workers to complete degree programs.
Under the bill, people who earn credentials as an early childhood educator as part of an associate degree program from a community college will automatically become eligible to transfer as a junior to a bachelor's degree program at a public university.
"Ultimately, upskilling the incumbent early childhood workforce fosters racial, gender, geographic, and economic equity while enabling families to work, go to school and provide a safe and high quality environment for children to learn and grow," Pacione-Zayas said in a statement. "They are the workforce behind the workforce who held us together during the pandemic. This new law will dismantle barriers and streamline pathways for diverse early childhood professionals to meet educational goals and foster economic stability."