McHenry County school districts want '70/30' rule tossed out

Proposal would end cap on number of special education students per class

School districts throughout McHenry County would welcome the ability to determine the number of special education students placed in general education classrooms for the first time in more than three decades.

But other districts are waiting to see how the Illinois State Board of Education will decide in the coming months on a proposed rule change that would grant local districts that authority before planning retooled classrooms and student schedules.

The state has restricted the number of special education students in general education classrooms since the 1970s and implemented the “70/30” rule in the late 1990s that restricted the number of special education students in mainstream classrooms to 30 percent.

Administrators from multiple districts in the county agreed that special education students would have better access to the general education curriculum and heightened interaction with their peers if the state eliminated the rule.

But they are equally mindful of the rule’s original intention to ease the burden on teachers already managing general education students who have differing needs.

“Teachers have to make sure they are meeting the needs of those students in the classroom,” said Lisa Peterson, special education director for Woodstock District 200. “When you add in over 30 percent of the classroom having varying needs, it’s hard to do that. But we do want to be more inclusive in our education. ... With the 70/30 rule, we sometimes restrict that access.”

The district supports the elimination of the rule since it allows for equal education access and more flexibility with classroom scheduling.

But Peterson said the district would keep the classroom ratio near 30 percent to avoid overloading teachers. Roughly 13 percent of the district’s 6,400 students have special needs.

Huntley District 158 also hasn’t started actively planning new classroom ratios since the state education board started seeking public input on the rule change in February. But like Woodstock, administrators would like the flexibility of having local control over classroom scheduling.

Karen Aylward, special services director for District 158, said the district would not deviate too far from the 30 percent mark if the rule is scratched. Slightly less than 13 percent of the district’s 9,300 students are in special education.

“You could see more inclusion and more interaction between special education students and their peers,” Aylward said. “It gives us a little more flexibility on scheduling our students.”

Unlike neighboring Huntley, administrators at Carpentersville District 300 have already said the district would increase the number of special education students in mainstream classrooms to 40 percent.

The district board’s legislative committee earlier this month wanted to adopt a legislative priority that would allow the district to advocate for the “70/30” rule elimination to the community before public comment on the issue closes April 22.

But the panel ultimately did not vote on the idea because of board concerns. The committee could potentially try to pass the priority through the full board again at its April 8 meeting.

Shelley Nacke, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in District 300, said that a 40 percent cutoff allows for increased access and interaction for special education students, while not overloading teachers.

“It still meets the needs of the special education students as well as the general education students, and allows for a positive learning environment for both,” Nacke said. “It educates students in the least restrictive environment.”

If the issue becomes a legislative priority, District 300 will organize a public campaign involving emails and messages to district parents informing them of the district’s position on the “70/30” rule and the need for them to weigh in on the issue.

Anyone can examine and comment on the proposed rule elimination through until April 22. The state education agency then will examine the comments and present to the full board a final proposal for a vote later this summer.

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