Chairwoman Allen, Vice-Chairman Boyer, members of the committee:
Thank you for having me and for the opportunity to deliver the first annual State of Special Education today. Last week, I spoke to the House Education Committee about the need for a comprehensive plan for our public education system.
But one specific area of this system deserves our immediate and intense focus -- special education.
There are currently 150,000 Arizona students in special education whose needs range in severity and in the kinds of supports they need for success.
Whether a student faces mobility issues or speech challenges, emotional needs or learning obstacles – that student deserves access to quality professionals with the expertise and resources to support their individual needs.
As a speech therapist in our public schools, I worked with a team of educators to ensure that all students have access to a quality education and saw many students overcome extraordinary challenges.
For example, early in my career, I worked with one of my favorite students who I refer to as Mason, who had brain damage from severe seizures. His mother shared with me that Mason relied on using 5 picture cards to communicate at home.
Through intensive speech therapy, I taught him to use an iPad to communicate and significantly expanded his vocabulary. By the end of the year, for the first time, he was able to say “I love you” to his mom.
The skills taught in our special education programs extend far beyond the classroom – into homes, playgrounds, birthday parties, and eventually, into the workplace.
But in my conversations with school leaders, I have heard countless times that our underfunded special education system leaves many schools with difficult choices on where to make cuts in order to provide services - choices they should not have to make.
A 2007 cost study revealed a $100 million-dollar gap between what schools were receiving for special education and what they were spending. Today, any principal or special education director will tell you that gap is even greater.
I am encouraged to see bipartisan support for increasing funding for special education – and I again want to thank this committee for passing Senator Allen’s bill, SB1060 which takes an important step toward filling that gap.
But I think we can all agree that this is just a first step – with special education historically underfunded at the federal level, state resources are even more critical.
I’ve heard from so many people – parents and educators alike – who are frustrated by years of cuts that have resulted in an under-resourced system that is stretched thin.
As a result, our state is facing a severe shortage of certified and licensed professionals in all areas of Special Education.
Even though there are 16,000 certified Special Education teachers in Arizona right now, less than half are currently reported as teaching in our schools.
Shortages in these teachers, Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, and School Psychologists are at crisis levels.
None of these positions were included in the 20x2020 raises – and many of these professionals are paid higher wages in other industries, like healthcare or in private practice.
Contributing to the shortage is the fact that special education teachers face higher rates of burnout as they balance teaching among high caseloads, mandatory paperwork, limited resources and high turnover of support staff.
Given this reality, it’s critical to provide comprehensive supports for special education teachers -- especially during their first years in the classroom. This is why the Arizona Department of Education’s Exceptional Student Services team developed an exciting new program called Teach Camp.
Teach Camp was designed in partnership with the Arizona Council for Exceptional Children to improve the retention of new special education teachers. It offers an extensive, year-long system of supports, including ongoing professional development and connection to a network of peers. Last year’s Teach Camp assisted 140 educators – and is fast becoming a national model.
Our specialists at ADE have found innovative ways to support teachers. To build on that success, I’m grateful for your partnership with ADE in all the ways we serve the field.
Last year, with Senator Boyer’s leadership on SB1318, ADE created a Dyslexia Specialist position for the first time in Arizona’s history. We are thrilled that Michelle Hodges – a middle school interventionist and developmental preschool teacher – is now working with teams across ADE to ensure all of Arizona’s students receive effective reading instruction, and that schools know best practices for identifying students with dyslexic characteristics.
I want to thank Senator Boyer for sponsoring SB1491, which you are hearing today, and which includes funding for Michelle’s position as well as two more full-time employees who will provide trainings to K-3 educators across the state. I urge this committee to support this bill and allow ADE to build a team that, together, will help our schools meet the needs of struggling readers, especially those with dyslexia.
Another part of Michelle’s new role is supporting our Early Childhood team in educating preschool providers on how to identify language processing challenges.
Preschool is often the first time a student can be evaluated by a professional who can develop a plan that meets their unique needs and abilities. Increasing access to preschool means earlier diagnoses, greater prevention, and reduced gaps in intervention. Preschool is also one of the strongest predictors of academic success.
Programs like First Things First and Head Start have laid the groundwork for families to access early childhood services, but without dedicated state funding, too many families, in rural and urban areas alike, lack any access to preschool – a problem exacerbated by our state’s recent loss of $20 million in federal Preschool Development Grants.
I wholeheartedly support – and urge your support of -- the bipartisan bill HB2806 which would help restore this funding. It is critical that our preschool programs serving families across the state have the resources they need to keep their doors open.
The success of our students with special needs indicates the success of the entire public education system and the success of our state. Across Arizona, we’re seeing Districts build more inclusive school communities.
For more than 17 years, this has been the case in Mrs. Jana Martin’s class at Miles’ Exploratory Learning Center in Tucson Unified - where 13 third through fifth-grade students who are deaf or hard of hearing are taught alongside their peers.
The school’s seven co-enrolled classrooms are led by one certified Deaf and Hard of Hearing Teacher and one general education teacher and supported by licensed speech therapists and classroom aides.
Like all dual-language programs, receiving instruction in both American Sign Language and English enriches the learning of all of the students in Mrs. Martin’s class and builds important bridges that ensure no child feels as though they are learning differently.
In today’s public education system, every child should feel that they are valued. And I know what our students are capable of when we give them the tools to succeed.
But it will take investment -- in special education educator pay; in high-quality pre-school; in the services that students need, to make this a reality.
We can do this fairly. And we can do this now.
So, I ask you, our state leaders, to invest comprehensively in our public education system, in our students receiving special education services, and in the coming generations of Arizonans that will define the future of our great state.