SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The Illinois House Human Services Committee approved a bill Tuesday to allow students to stay in special education programs until the end of the school year, even if they turn 22 years old earlier that year.
Rep. Fran Hurley (D-Chicago) says no one should “yank” students with special needs out of school on their 22nd birthday. The fight is personal, as Hurley filed the proposal on behalf of one of her neighbors. Katie Kettering’s son Charlie aged out of school in November of 2019. She stressed this disrupted Charlie’s daily routine and consistency critical for students in special education programs.
As a result, Kettering said kids should have the ability to finish the school year just like everyone else.
“Once they start something, let them finish it,” Kettering said. “That’s what they’re taught. Our kids have a hard enough time as it is. And the one thing that’s constant in their lives is school.”
Advocates emphasized the challenges facing students transitioning to programs for adults without knowing anyone there or the daily routine. Josh Long is the Principal of Southside Occupational Academy High School in Chicago. Long explained his school helps students with disabilities become as independent as possible upon graduation.
“These students stay in school until the day before their 22nd birthday, and then they’re done. The bus stops coming. There’s no more public school, no more resources,” Long said. “Despite all the preparation that we can give them of the impending change, students often do not understand.”
He explained Illinois also ranks 44th in the country for funding programs for adults with disabilities. Long stressed that many students sit and wait at home until their adult services begin. He feels House Bill 40 could finally start to address the inequities and provide a proper transition from public school to adult services.
Worries of unfunded mandates
However, the plan met opposition from several organizations including the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education. Former IAASE President Melissa Taylor said the proposal creates an unfunded mandate exceeding the federal Individuals With Disabilities Act. She noted preliminary estimates indicate an additional $20 million per year in state and local funds. Although, Taylor explained local governments would likely pass those costs on to local property taxpayers.
“Many of the students who have these disabilities are served in private special education facilities or special ed cooperative programs in which districts pay a daily rate of tuition. Without increased funds, the new mandate would require budget adjustments for districts with higher local capacity,” Taylor explained. “But, for districts with lower local capacity, it could easily create the need for cuts. Adding an unfunded mandate like this would most impact the districts least able to pay and take away some of the progress the state has made towards equitable school funding.”
Opponents of the bill still understood the frustration from parents. However, they feel extending the time for students to stay in school delays the inevitable – critical services ending. They argued the state should better fund day programs and vocational opportunities for students aging out of school.
“We believe that focusing on a solution to that program would be a much better use of time and resources for this group of students,” Taylor said.
Hurley’s proposal passed out of committee on a 14-1 vote. The bill heads to the House floor for second reading once lawmakers return for in-person session.