MOISD considers permanent increase to special education class sizes

MECOSTA COUNTY – The Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District is considering revisions to its special education policy that could increase teachers’ caseload and class sizes.

Currently, the MOISD policy states special education teachers can have 18 elementary students on a caseload and 10 students in class at one time. For middle and high school special education, teachers can have a caseload of 20 students and an average of 10 students in a class. A teacher’s caseload is the total number of students he or she instructs in a day. For special education classes, teachers are required to develop an individual education plan for each student.

For the past four years, the MOISD has received a waiver from the Michigan Department of Education that permitted the district to allow up to five more students on each teacher’s caseload. As part of the state’s requirements, the MOISD had to conduct a survey of teachers and parents to gain feedback on how the increased class sizes affected student performance. The results showed there was no significant impact on performance, said Curt Finch, MOISD superintendent.

The waiver, meant to be a short-term amendment to the MOISD’s policy, was initially denied for the current academic year because it had already been granted for so many years and based on feedback from other organizations, said Lynette Suchner, MOISD director of Special Education. The Department of Education has no set standard for special education class sizes, but rather approves them on a case-by-case basis.

The state granted the waiver one more time as the MOISD began drafting a new policy that would reflect the standards outlined in the waiver. Under the new MOISD policy, special education teachers could have a caseload of up to 23 elementary students and 10 students in a class at one time. Middle and high school special education teachers could have a caseload of 25 students with an average of 12 students in a class.

The MOISD Board of Education will discuss the revision at its March 14 meeting and decide what the next course of action is. The school board in each MOISD district has already expressed approval of the revision.

“Teachers have been operating under this for several years,” Suchner said. “It hasn’t impacted student performance.”

In all, the MOISD schools serve about 2,000 special education students. Each district employs its own staff for the students at its school, and the MOISD provides itinerant speech therapists, physical therapists, physicians, social workers and psychologists. The MOISD also houses special education classes for districts without enough demand to warrant a separate class at their own facilities.

“Special education classes are highly regulated,” Finch said. “They’re made up of a transient population.”

Class sizes in special education classrooms fluctuate as an increasing number of students are referred for special education and deemed eiligible, Suchner said. Also, more families are struggling financially, causing them to move more frequently and change schools. A higher cap on class size would save the districts from hiring more teachers or struggling to find temporary alternatives while at capacity. In this way, the revised policy would save the districts money.

“It’s not just about the financial aspect,” Suchner said. “We have to think about what’s doable for the students. But general education teachers have to have more students in their classrooms; unfortunately that’s the reality for special education, too.”

Other intermediate school districts establish their own standards for special education classrooms. Kalamazoo had the lowest cap with 18 students for each teacher’s caseload at the elementary level and 20 for the secondary level. The highest cap on caseload is 10 full-time equivalencies and 25 students at a time, which is allowed in Calhoun County. A six-hour school day could be divided so a teacher sees three students for two hours each; this would equate to one full-time student. With that in mind, a teacher could see up to 30 students in a day for two hours each and still meet the limit of 10 full-time equivalency standard.

Most districts fall between 20 and 25 students per teacher caseload.

According to parent advocate Debbie Todd, of Reed City, the MOISD regulations still allow for too many students in a class.

“No one has said it’s the best for our kids. It’s about money and money only,” Todd said. “(Special education) is difficult to begin with and (the policy) is going to make it more difficult.”

She urged administrators to listen to teachers, saying they knew best about the impact in the classroom.

Lenore Weaver, the director of K-12 special education for Big Rapids Public Schools, said that while the increased class sizes are not ideal, the revised policy is a necessary compromise.

“To isolate general education from special education in this financial climate is a lose-lose,” she said, citing the increase in general education class sizes as well.

If a district is at capacity for special education classes, they must hire a new teacher to accommodate new students. Students will not be transferred to another district, and new hires are costly.

“Do those kids deserve it? Yes. Do they need it? Yes. But so do the kids in that (general education) geography class,” Weaver said.