State may force teachers into special education role

New regulations to limit untrained workers generates controversy

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2001

Fewer untrained people would teach special education students, but perhaps more of the teachers would be doing it unwillingly, under regulations proposed by the state Department of Education.

Under the proposed rules, school districts would have to reassign qualified teachers to fill special education positions, rather than get waivers from state requirements for qualifications. The agency also wants to prevent some teachers from dropping the special education endorsement from their state teaching certificate.

Special education includes students with learning or physical disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbances, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders.

The rules come at a time when special education teachers are hard to find, especially because so many burn out and switch to regular education. Critics of the rules said the shortage of special education teachers won't be addressed until there's higher pay, lower work loads and relief from paperwork.

In the meantime, some educators and parents think it's better to use teachers still in training than unwilling teachers.

Juneau schools Superintendent Gary Bader said he'd rather have the ability to ask for a waiver than be required to reassign teachers "from a position where they are thriving and force them to be in a position they don't want to be in."

"As a parent, I would prefer to hire someone with a waiver because that person wants to be there, and I want my child with someone who wants to be with them," said Faye Nieto, executive director of Parents Inc. in Alaska, a nonprofit organization that trains parents of children with disabilities.

Some special education students are in regular classrooms and they benefit from teachers who have special education endorsements, Nieto added. She wouldn't want to see those teachers transferred out of the regular classrooms.

The proposed rule on waivers is in response to a complaint filed this year about past waivers for the Anchorage School District. Some waivers went to teachers who didn't meet the requirements, according to Marc Grober, an Anchorage attorney who voiced the complaint. He said students weren't getting the benefit of qualified teachers.

The state allows school districts to hire certificated teachers for special education who haven't completed coursework toward a special education endorsement, if the districts can't hire an endorsed person. The waiver is valid for up to three years and depends on annual progress toward completing the coursework.

The state granted one waiver in 1998, 12 in 1999 and 35 this year, said state Department of Education spokesman Harry Gamble.

The proposed change says school districts can get a waiver only if they can't hire new teachers with special education endorsements or reassign endorsed teachers already on staff.

A related proposed rule also would prevent special education-endorsed teachers from dropping their endorsements if they're currently teaching special education, or during the first five years as a certificated teacher, or during the term of temporary or provisional teaching certificates.

Thirty-two teachers have removed their special education endorsements since Aug. 29, including 21 in Anchorage and six in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, Gamble said.

About 160 teachers in Anchorage are endorsed for special education but aren't teaching it, said Bob Roses, president of the Anchorage Education Association, a teachers' union.

"It's never that they don't want to work with special education kids," Roses said. "It's all the massive amounts of paperwork and meetings that go with it."

Twenty Anchorage teachers were transferred to special education this school year because the state wouldn't give the district waivers, after it reconsidered its policy in light of Grober's complaint. Twelve of the teachers took $3,000 bonuses to make the move. The others were reassigned against their will, Roses said.

The proposed rules would keep special education teachers tied to their jobs unless there's a replacement for them, said Rich Kronberg, president of National Education Association-Alaska, a teachers' union.

"It's a Band-Aid," he said of the regulations. "And in the long run it will be counterproductive. Why would someone come into a job they could never get out of?"

Kim Floyd, a spokeswoman for the Mat-Su school district, said: "The reality is there's a shrinking pool of special education staff, not only in the state but in the nation. We have to look at resources within the school district."

The Juneau School District hasn't had a teacher remove a special education endorsement recently, nor has it sought a waiver, officials said. But it's getting harder to hire special education teachers, superintendent Bader said. Recruiters outnumber special education teachers at job fairs.

Floyd said the proposed rules may reduce the Mat-Su school district's need to recruit special education teachers.

Teachers now "can use a special education endorsement to gain a foot in the door only to transfer (to regular education) next year, which creates a hole in hiring and makes recruitment all the more difficult," Floyd said.

The Anchorage School District is declining comment until its school board discusses the proposed rules.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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