For Larkin Armstrong, a Champaign first-grader who has special needs, spending time with her classmates without disabilities at school means they recognize her in the grocery store or around town as just another student who wants to learn.
Possible changes to the state's rules about special education have Armstrong's mom, Champaign resident Amy Armstrong, concerned that the state is allowing for budget cuts at the expense of students in special education.
But a spokeswoman for the state board said the proposed changes are designed to give school districts more flexibility to deal with their students' needs.
The state is proposing changes to its rules that would lift current maximum class sizes on self-contained special education classrooms, which are now determined by how much time each student with a disability spends in a general classroom.
The state is also looking at doing away with its current definition of a general-education classroom as one that has at least 70 percent of students without special needs, and 30 percent with special needs.
The state is accepting public comment on the matter (please see box on how you can comment) and will have at least one public hearing and maybe more, said Mary Fergus, the state board's spokeswoman.
"We know from the volume of feedback we've already received, we will likely have more than one public hearing, (which) will likely occur this spring and early summer," she said. There's no deadline on how soon the board will decide on the changes.
"Illinois is just one of a handful of states that has these class-size restrictions," Fergus said. "Most states allow school districts to best assess the needs for services for children with disabilities. Our board believes that's the best course of action, as well."
Fergus said the restrictions on general education classroom ratios may keep students, especially those in middle and high school, out of certain classes because the seats for students with disabilities are already filled.
For example, if there are 20 seats available for a particular class, the 70-30 ratio dictates that six of those seats can be filled by students with special needs.
"We believe (the changes put) the focus on the needs of students rather than putting the key focus on (classroom) ratios," Fergus said. She also said the changes put Illinois in line with other states' policies.
Fergus said if the changes happen, they won't affect how much state and federal funding school districts receive for special education, but they will be able to use their funding more flexibly.
"It is generating discussion and we are listening and going to continue to listen and respond to feedback as we receive it," Fergus said.
Armstrong said she believes the state is making the changes as a result of tough financial times for schools and is "chipping away at the stopgap keeping special ed safe."
"It's a big deal," Armstrong said, and she believes the state is "attacking the ones that can't fight back and are the most vulnerable out of the gate."
Fergus said the state adopted the 70-30 ratio as a part of a 1999 consent decree, which it was dismissed from last fall. That's one reason it's looking at changing that rule now, she said.
She said the state is focused on finding more ways to meet students' needs, which is the primary reason it's looking at changing the rules.
"Obviously, there are funding implications to all this, but the proposed changes are really about putting the focus on meeting students' needs, rather than meeting a ratio," she said.
Larkin Armstrong spends most of her time in the resource room at Barkstall Elementary, Amy Armstrong said, so her individualized educational plan includes "reverse inclusion," which has students without special needs visiting Larkin in that room. It also includes goals for what Larkin can do with a classmate's help.
As a result, Armstrong said, other students recognize Larkin around town.
That's what inclusion — which puts students with special needs into general education classrooms with extra supports or assistance — is intended to do, Armstrong said. Students who interact with her daughter learn empathy, while Larkin learns to model them and a friendship can be formed.
Armstrong said she fears the state's proposed changes will send special education students back to self-contained, non-inclusive classrooms.
"Every parent and person in Illinois should be concerned," she said.
Armstrong said she's not concerned that this would affect special education in Champaign schools, but is worried about what it would mean for students in smaller school districts, where she said parents may already struggle to make sure their kids' needs are met.
Armstrong is concerned that a class full of students with Individualized Education Plans can be taught by a general-education teacher, eliminating a need for a special ed teacher.
"They will start cutting teachers who are there specifically to help these kids," Armstrong said, which will demand more from teachers who aren't necessarily qualified to support special education students.
Debbie Einhorn, the executive director of Family Matters Parent Training and Information Center, echoed Armstrong's concerns.
Einhorn said if the changes happen, she's concerned that children around the state will have less access to general-education curriculums, and won't be taught alongside their peers without disabilities.
"You could potentially have a classroom with ... 100 percent of students with (special needs) taught by a well-qualified, general-education teacher," Einhorn said. "The instruction might be very good, but students might not be exposed to their general-education peers."
Family Matters is funded by the U.S. Department of Education under the Office of Special Education Programs. It serves 94 Illinois counties, which include the whole state except the Chicago area.
Einhorn said she'd be open to the state changing the definition of a general-ed classroom to include either a 60-40 or 50-50 ratio of students without disabilities to students with disabilities.
"I don't think the number is so important as just making sure that students with (individualized educational plans) are included with students who don't have (such plans)," Einhorn said.
As for ending the limits on self-contained special ed class sizes, Einhorn said she's also concerned.
She said she's hearing about school districts cutting teachers and aides and increasing class sizes as they face financial hardships.
"Historically, special education is the first thing to be impacted by those types of things," Einhorn said. "It's difficult to imagine children (with special needs) would be able to have their needs met in a large classroom, especially if they're lacking in classroom aides."
Todd Taylor, Urbana's assistant superintendent for special services, said he knows the possible changes have some people nervous, but Urbana can't make drastic cuts to its special education program because of an agreement it has with the federal government.
When receiving federal IDEA grants — which provide about 10 percent of Urbana's funding for special education — the school district agrees to spend at least as much local and state money on special education as it spent the previous year. That's true for every school district that receives that federal grant, he said.
If it doesn't spend as much as last year, the difference will come from federal grant money the next year, Taylor said, or a school district could even be billed. It's called Maintenance of Effort.
However, Taylor said the state changing its rules could give Urbana more flexibility.
For example, current class-size caps mean a special education classroom for early childhood allows five students in a class, or 10 students if the classroom also has an aide.
But if an 11th student moves in, that means the school district has to add another classroom, regardless of that student's needs.
Without a cap, the school district could create a larger class, if the needs of the students in it allowed, or keep another, smaller class for students with more intensive needs.
However, he said, Urbana is a big enough school district that current caps on students with disabilities don't affect whether they're able to get into general-education classes.
He also doesn't have a strong opinion on the topic.
"I don't know if it would radically change what we do," Taylor said. "We always have to be looking at the needs of the students," and providing "appropriate support for staff" who work with students.
Elizabeth deGruy, the Champaign school district's director of special education, said she doesn't have a problem with the state changing the ratio of how many students with and without disabilities can be in a general education classroom.
"It's not necessarily something that we would say is research-based, or best-practice based," she said.
She said Champaign is a large enough school district that it's usually not a problem for older students with disabilities to get into general-education classes, because the school district builds class schedules around those students' needs.
"In special ed, there are always issues that are emotionally charged for people for a number of different reasons," deGruy said. "Parents fear that their kids are going to be discriminated against and those are reasonable fears based on what's happened in the state in the past. But here and in a lot of other districts, as well, we're moving in a direction that does put more individual emphasis on what kids needs rather than fitting kids into what we're doing."
She's also not concerned that Champaign might start overloading classes that are just for special education students.
"I can really see how that would be worrisome for districts, particularly in this time ... that's financially tough," she said. "I don't think that would be as much of a concern for Champaign. Champaign has really been, in a lot of ways, ahead of the curve making sure that we don't place large groups of kids in special ed classes, all in one classroom together."
The school district works hard to make sure it has adequate resources to provide quality education for its students with special needs.
"Because Champaign is really committed to delivering special education services in a way that is really best practice, I don't think that as much of a concern here," she said.
Armstrong has concerns that other school districts will fill classes with special-education students, then either call it a general-education classroom, taught by a general-education teacher, or have a special education teacher teach it and cut the general-education teacher's position. But she said she's not concerned that such a thing would happen in Champaign, at least under its current administration.
DeGruy said she can't see it happening in Champaign.
"I can't even begin to imagine it," she said. "But ... there are a lot of districts around the state that are monitored a lot less closely than we are," or are members of a special-education cooperative with less school district oversight on special education.
"Those are the places that could really be affected," she said.
Brian Brooks, principal at St. Joseph-Ogden High School, said he doesn't anticipate much changing at his school next year if the proposed changes happen.
"It could allow more flexibility down the road," he said, adding the changes could help put students with special needs in a "least restrictive environment" at a time when state funding is expected to keep dropping. However, he said he doesn't foresee cutting teachers because of the changes.
He said the school works to make sure it meets the needs of every student with an individualized educational plan.
Now, even if a general-education classroom has fewer than 30 percent of students with special needs, his school adds aides if students need them. The same thing goes for self-contained special-education classrooms, even if the class size is smaller than what's required by the state.
"Each year we look at what the student needs are and base our decisions off that," Brooks said.
Eric "Rick" Brackmann, director of the Ford County Special Education Cooperative, said if the proposed changes happen, they wouldn't drastically affect the cooperative's students.
The cooperative employs school psychologists, speech-language pathologists and occupational and physical therapists who work in the Paxton-Buckley-Loda and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley school districts.
Brackmann also works with the districts' superintendents, principals and special education teachers, helping them find answers to instructional problems, or helping them brainstorm ways to promote their students' positive behavior.
He said changes to restrictions on special education class sizes won't have a "profound effect" on the classes at PBL and GCMS, because many of the schools' special education students already learn in general-education classrooms, either with the help of a special education teacher or an aide.
Brackmann said the possibility of ending the rule about having no more than 30 percent of students with disabilities in a general education classroom might make it easier for a student with special needs to get into such a class.
For example, he said, a high school might have one section of a particular general-education class, and it wouldn't take very many students with disabilities to reach the 30-percent ratio.
"From time to time, that is a minor problem for us. ... We wouldn't have to keep track quite as carefully as we put (students with disabilities) into (general education) classes, which is our goal for most students with disabilities," Brackmann said.
As for concerns about creating a class full of students with disabilities, but calling it a general-education class, Brackmann said that won't happen at GCMS or PBL.
"Neither district would take advantage of it and load a class up with (students with disabilities)," he said. "We want to make sure we're meeting the needs of all the students."
How to comment
The state board of education is accepting public comment on the changes until April 22.
You can mail your comments to Shelley Helton, Agency Rules Coordinator, Illinois State Board of Education, 100 North First Street, S-493, Springfield, Illinois 62777-0001.
Or you can comment by calling 217-782-5270 or emailing email@example.com.