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Published in Print: November 26, 2003, as Illinois Parents Cite Special Education Worries

Illinois Parents Cite Special Education Worries

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Illinois parents unhappy about the quality of special education in their state gathered at the Capitol in Springfield last week to voice their concerns to lawmakers.

Fifty parents from a grassroots group called the Parents' Alliance for Compliance in Special Education teamed up with other advocacy groups to demand better compliance with federal law and improved schooling for children with disabilities.

"We're down here to have a show of force by parents, and we're tired of the state board of education not enforcing the law," said Brad Bradley, the father of a 12-year-old son with autism and the president of PACE.

As part of the Nov. 19 efforts, Mr. Bradley joined representatives from the other groups at a news conference to call for legislative hearings on special education.

They also plan to file individual complaints in December with the state education agency, alleging that schools routinely violate the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

State officials contend that Illinois is making progress. In particular, they say, the state is taking steps to comply with a 1998 federal court ruling that found the state had failed to monitor the treatment of students with disabilities in the Chicago school system. ("Court Faults Illinois in Chicago Spec. Ed. Case," March 4, 1998.)

"Illinois has a tradition of weak state enforcement on just about any issue, and on special education they have had a miserable record of enforcing the law," said Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago-based parent and education advocacy group, and the father of two grown children with disabilities.

'Mistreated, Misunderstood'

Mr. Moore's group has pushed for better special education programs, especially in Chicago, for many years. The state has gained little ground in meeting all sections of the federal law, he said.

The U.S. Department of Education found the state out of compliance with many parts of the federal law in a December 2002 report.

"Even when they find school districts and schools that are out of compliance, and they tell them they have to correct their behavior, nothing happens," Mr. Moore maintained. "It's that step between monitoring and actual enforcement we still see as just fundamentally lacking."

Mr. Bradley, who lives in Frankfort, Ill., in the outer suburbs of Chicago, said the state has a shortage of qualified special education teachers. "As a result, kids are mistreated, and they're certainly misunderstood," he said.

Students' individualized education plans, which are required under federal law for students with disabilities, are often incomplete or aren't followed, and parents and educators who speak out against wrongs in the system are prone to face retaliation by school officials, he said.

He added that Illinois students with disabilities too often are grouped in the same classes, rather than being taught in regular classrooms. "You go to gym, you go to lunch, but you don't go to science or math, and so you're sort of an outcast," said Mr. Bradley.

He was hopeful after meeting with lawmakers last week that the issues will get more attention.

State officials don't dispute some of the complaints, but say change is difficult in such a large state.

"I think we're going to see great strides in the use of data and direct intervention with those districts that are having the most difficulty," said Christopher Koch, the state's director of special education. "It's the kind of thing where you feel like you can never do it fast enough."

Mr. Koch noted that more teachers are being trained in all aspects of special education, rather than narrow parts of the field. "That's leading to a lot of change," he said.

The state is meeting the requirements in the 2002 federal review, he said. "It's reasonable to expect kids to be making progress in school, and that's something that needs to be looked at if it's not happening," Mr. Koch said.

Vol. 23, Issue 13, Page 15

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