Even within a community of people who are dedicated to the welfare of children with disabilities there is not always perfect consensus of opinion. The following is an letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune from the Illinois ARC:
To the Editor:
Regarding "State Board OKs New Guidelines for Special Ed" (December 15, 2006):
The Arc of Illinois believes that the article and the quoted comments give an incomplete picture. We believe that there are aspects of special education as it is now administered and supervised in Illinois that are far more harmful to children and families than the proposed State rules. In addition, we disagree with some of the quoted comments regarding the proposed rules.
The Arc believes that any potential harm that could be done to children by the proposed rules pales in comparison to:
(1) The lack of a comprehensive and effective system of monitoring and enforcing school districts' compliance with the letter and spirit of the federal law and Illinois School Code. While many school districts in Illinois employ highly qualified personnel and use accepted best practices in instructing students with disabilities, others fall far short of their legal and educational responsibilities to these children. Areas that are in particular need of extensive monitoring and compliance enforcement include transition planning for youth with disabilities, the content of Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) and the mainstreaming of children with disabilities into the general education program.
(2) Inadequate funding of special education by both the Congress and State. Congress has never lived up to its promise in regard to funding special education. The State inadequately funds all K-12 education, including special education, and uses a methodology that results in grossly unequal funding throughout the State. It is no coincidence that students with disabilities who attend districts in more affluent parts of the State where property tax revenue is higher seem, as a whole, to receive better services.
(3) A terribly flawed federal law that was reauthorized in 2004 based primarily on input from school district lawyers, special education directors and teachers' unions. Parents and advocates for persons with disabilities were essentially shut out of that process by Congressional leaders. Thanks to Senate leaders such as Sen. Ted Kennedy, the bill was improved somewhat in joint House-Senate conference. However, as a whole, the legislation does not create a level playing field, especially in the area of dispute resolution.
As for the proposed State rules, your writer says that they were "bulky" and "impossible to understand". We suggest that they were not any "bulkier" or hard to understand than the current rules or the federal rules that went into effect on October 14, 2006.
The real problem was that the proposed rules incorporated by reference entire sections of what were at that time proposed federal rules (and actually made the proposed State rules less bulky), thereby requiring the reader to constantly refer back to the federal rules. It is subject to debate whether this incorporation format will really "hurt children" as you suggest. We doubt it. It might make it more inconvenient for parents and others to follow the rules (they would need to have a set of the federal rules for reference), but is this what parents really care about on a daily basis when it comes to their children?
The comments about the rules governing class size also need clarification. First, we applaud the State Board for removing the "placement by label" approach to special education. That has historically resulted in "warehousing" children in segregated classrooms based upon diagnosis. This has resulted in a "one-size-fits-all" approach to special education and the unwarranted separation of children with disabilities from their non-disabled peers. In fact, in many cases children were diagnosed as having a particular disability label erroneously in order to place them in a pre-determined segregated special education program.
Our concern about class groupings is that we believe that children with disabilities should be removed from regular education ONLY if (1) their IEPs require removal for educational and therapeutic reasons, (2) the services in the separate classroom or group setting can be individualized, (3) the personnel in those settings are qualified to address the educational and therapeutic needs of those students and (4) the students in those groupings have common educational needs. We will advocate for the addition of such language into the rules when JCAR considers the proposed rules.
Finally, a couple words of praise for Chris Koch and his staff at ISBE: The proposed rules contain some very positive provisions that help parents and students. First, they continue the transition planning age at the school year in which the child turns 14 ½ years of age, even though IDEA 2004 allows states to adopt age 16 as the starting point for transition planning. Second, the ISBE rules continue to require IEPs to contain short-term objectives or benchmarks for every child with an IEP even thought federal law limits this requirement. Third, the rules would require school districts to offer services to students with disabilities up to their 22nd birthday instead of terminating services at the end of the school year in which the student turns 21. This could add several months and even close to a year of needed transition services to a child's educational experience. Finally, the new proposed rules add a timeline at the beginning of the child referral process that currently does not exist in law or rule. Some school districts have unconscionably delayed responding to a request for an evaluation of a child because of this loophole in the current State rules.
The Arc of Illinois appreciates the opportunity to clarify some of the comments made in your December 15 article.