How’s this for cynical?

(Joel van Houdt / For The Washington Post)
(Joel van Houdt/For The Washington Post)

How’s this for cynical? The Illinois State Board of Education wants to remove class size protections for students with disabilities. If the proposal (officially known as changes to state administrative rule Part 226) is approved, there would be no statewide limits on the size of special education classes, or the percentage of students with disabilities who can be placed in a general education class. Furthermore, there would be no requirement that a paraprofessional be assigned to a special education class of any particular size.

Why would the state want to do this? Think of the money cramming more kids into a classroom with a single teacher could save. Education officials would also say this is more about achieving broader access for special ed students to regular classes, but they could, if they wanted, achieve that without gutting class size rules. And they would say that this is about giving local school systems more control to set up their own ratios, but that’s really precious, given other reforms the state has mandated in recent years, including insisting that teachers be evaluated by student standardized test scores and changes in teacher tenure rules.

Currently, Illinois schools must adhere to the 70-30 rule, which requires that no regular class can have more than 30 percent of special education students. Under the proposal, which will be discussed Jan. 22 at the Illinois Board of Education meeting, districts could do whatever they wanted in this regard.

Do class sizes matter? Many school reformers like to say they don’t, but they aren’t the ones who are teaching a class of 40 kids with different needs. Of course class sizes matter. It’s silly to think they don’t. With special education students — who need even more help than regular education students do — it matters even more. Without support staff to help, eliminating class sizes is nothing short of outrageous. Dan Montgomery, a high school English teacher of 20 years and president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, got it right:

With continued cuts to public education, it’s irresponsible to make it even harder for students, particularly those with special needs, to succeed. Anyone who has ever stepped into a classroom understands this, and we need to remind the State Board of Education that their continued push for this proposal would be devastating for our kids.

Yet in the spring, Chicago Public School officials actually argued that class size doesn’t much matter. A CPS spokeswoman, Becky Carroll, was quoted in this Chicago Tribune story as saying:

It’s the quality of teaching in that classroom. You could have a teacher that is high-quality that could take 40 kids in a class and help them succeed.

Hypothetically, in a Lake Wobegon world, that is true, but how many places do you know where you’d want your child in a class of 40 with one teacher? Plenty of research shows that class sizes does, of course, matter in improving student achievement.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · January 17