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Kathy Hoffman: Special-ed students need qualified teachers

Kathy Hoffman: Special-ed students need qualified teachers

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Our students in special education deserve highly trained teachers with the expertise needed to teach children with learning challenges. As a speech therapist for the public schools, I am alarmed at the implementation of SB 1317. This devastating policy ignores the realities of special education by allowing any certified teacher to provide specialized instruction for students with disabilities. This issue becomes even more damaging when we consider the fact that in Arizona you no longer need a teaching degree to become a certified teacher.

It is no secret that our public schools in Arizona are severely underfunded, including special education departments. As a result of inadequate funding, many school districts stretch their budgets as far as possible and it is still not enough. Take for instance the Peoria Unified School District, where I teach, which spends $10 million more for students with special needs than they receive from the state every year.

To make matters worse, special-ed teachers are in high demand across the state and the position is considered one of the most difficult to fill. With insufficient funding and dwindling numbers of qualified staff due to Arizona’s teacher crisis, no one is surprised that district administrators have lobbied the legislature for more flexibility. However, this “solution” is harmful for the students I serve. They have complicated and distinctive needs, which must be met in order for them to be have a chance to be successful in the classroom. This can only be provided by a highly-trained and qualified special-education teacher.

Students in special education face daily challenges that are best served by teachers with advanced training in working with students with disabilities. For example, one of my former second-grade students, “Landon,” was diagnosed with autism and was reading at a kindergarten level. Our special education teacher had her master’s degree in Special Education and years of experience in the field. Her training was not only in reading instruction, but how to work with the social and behavioral challenges associated with autism. Because of her advanced training, my colleague had a tool belt full of strategies to trial, such as a motivational reward system and a picture schedule of daily activities. Additionally, she provided training for staff in order to share her expertise and make sure that Landon was successful in every class. Without this teacher’s advanced training, Landon’s robust education and the successes that resulted from it would be unimaginable. For children like Landon, tremendous damage is done by policies such as SB 1317.

It is concerning when the lines between special education and general education are blurred and important, responsible regulations are eased in this way. While many children benefit from inclusive programs (i.e. integration or “mainstreaming” into general education classrooms), most teachers are simply not equipped to create an alternative, specialized curriculum. And, with ever increasing demands upon their time and resources, huge class sizes, and numerous professional responsibilities, most teachers simply do not have the time to provide the individualized education that these students need and deserve.

Rather than eliminating the need for teacher qualifications, we need to address the teacher crisis by increasing salaries, offering advanced training and coordinating teacher mentors for professional and emotional supports. To specifically address the shortage of special education teachers, the most effective strategy for administrators is to cultivate an environment of respect and collaboration while also recognizing the unique challenges of working in special education. Only when we treat teachers with the respect and compensation that they deserve as highly trained professionals will we be able to address Arizona’s teaching crisis once and for all.

Students with disabilities and their families need us to be their advocates and demand an alternative solution to SB 1317.

Kathy Hoffman, a speech therapist and educator, is a Democratic candidate for Arizona superintendent of public instruction.

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