Chairwoman Udall, Vice-Chairwoman Pingerelli, members of the committee, thank you for having me here today.
Before beginning, I’d like to start by acknowledging the different Native lands that we occupy today. The Department of Education sits on O’odham and Hohokam lands.
When I stood before you last year to deliver the inaugural State of Special Education address, I had no idea of the challenges awaiting us – particularly those of us with our hearts in Special Education. In a few short weeks, COVID-19 would upend much of what we considered routine.
As I said in my State of Education, the hardships caused by this pandemic – job and wage losses, housing and food insecurity, the disruption of our sense of normalcy and stability – have been felt most by our students, particularly students in special education.
Arizona students stood in line waiting for food boxes from schools, saw their families struggle to make ends meet with limited assistance from the state, shifted their learning to a variety of different scenarios this year, and watched their teachers take on the burden of hybrid and distance learning.
However, despite the pandemic's hardships, learning has not stopped, and Arizona families have overwhelmingly chosen our public schools for their students. As we move beyond and through this crisis, we have an opportunity to see our public schools not through partisan divides but through the eyes of the 1.1 million students who they serve.
The history of our nation’s public education system is marked by moments in which advocates expanded access to public education because they saw how student success was tied to the success of their school communities.
The desire to see every child access a free and appropriate education fueled some of the most impactful education reforms of the last century, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, often referred to as IDEA.
While our public education system is imperfect, it is guided by the philosophy and legal protections to guarantee every child, every student, the tools they need to grow, learn, and succeed.
As an educator and speech therapist, I have seen firsthand our schools’ commitment to students of all abilities -- particularly during COVID-19.
As our communities began to respond to COVID-19, there was an immediate concern for students in special education whose civil rights in education are protected by landmark policies like IDEA.
For every student in special education programs, public schools offer more than just academics – they provide a range of supports and services that meets their needs and advances their education. Many public schools quickly realized that special education should be one of the last programs to transition to distance learning.
Though it is not a feat easily achieved, some school communities have offered in-person special education services with strict mitigation strategies in place.
In November, I visited the special education program at Buckeye Elementary School District, which offered hybrid learning, allowing families to choose a mix of in-person and online instruction.
Supported by paraprofessionals, students learning at school interacted with the students learning at home while their teacher guided the day’s lesson. In the next room, a limited number of students received occupational therapy as the speech therapist set up a plexiglass shield to teach her students. While they faced challenges, the director shared that there was a much stronger home-to-school connection in the hybrid model, noting an increased continuity of shared language between school and home.
Yet, a few weeks after I visited, COVID-19 cases began to rise again.
Hospital and community leaders, including myself, began to call for additional mitigation strategies, urging both the state and individuals to take action to keep the virus at bay.
Meanwhile, at Buckeye Elementary, students at risk for severe complications from COVID-19 began to leave their in-person learning program to remain safer at home. Shortly after that, the hybrid program ended, returning to at-home learning to keep students and staff safe.
Fortunately, during periods of distance learning, most public schools continue to be open for students who most need a safe place to go. In many cases, these sites have prioritized students in special education, knowing how valuable the physical school space can be for those students and their families. The Arizona Department of Education's Exceptional Student Services Team supported these services by working to ensure that onsite support services offered multiple instructional modalities.
However, for some of our students in special education who are immunocompromised or medically fragile, record breaking COVID-19 surges have had the double-edged effect of producing instability in their learning and the need for additional health precautions.
Advocates have pointed out that much of our response to this virus has put an undue burden on those likely to be most affected by the virus, leaving the responsibility to remain safe on their shoulders.
In contrast, less vulnerable populations continue to participate in high-risk behavior fueling the spread of this virus.
While our COVID-19 numbers are finally trending down after a winter where we surpassed over 14,000 deaths, the pressure on our school communities remains tremendous. When all 15 counties are in the red, many parents and caregivers must manage the realities of learning from home. And it has not been easy.
Our state can ease this burden by continuing to take COVID-19 seriously, pairing an aggressive vaccine rollout with actionable mitigation strategies and enforcement.
Although Arizona has inoculated over 900,000 individuals with the COVID-19 vaccine and I’m grateful that educators are a priority group, we remain in a race against the more contagious variants that are spreading in our communities.
Our state must continue to expand access to vaccinations, especially for individuals with limited internet access, limited mobility, and rural Arizona residents. We must work quickly and efficiently to inoculate every eligible individual while working to lower our infection rates to avoid more illness and suffering from this virus. I encourage state leaders to remember that our students are at the end of every public health decision.
While reducing COVID-19’s spread and impact will provide our families and students the most immediate relief, we can take it one step further by building support systems that will help them beyond this crisis. Working families, including our education professionals, must have access to Paid Family Medical Leave. I urge the Senate to support Senator Quezada’s bill – SB1756 – to offer this much-needed relief to families across the state.
And, in periods of illness or heightened risk of infection, we can ensure that families and students who must stay home have access to reliable, high-quality internet that connects them to their school, work, doctors, and families. I encourage you to support and expand on Governor Ducey’s vision for broadband access.
The more support systems that our state can provide families, the more we support our public schools and the students they serve.
As you have heard me say before, supporting our educators is the key to student success.
When the demands of the classroom have never been higher, investing in our educator workforce is essential to retaining our educators - this is particularly true for our special education teachers, specialists, and support staff.
Supporting the educator workforce has been one of my top priorities. Using one-time CARES Act dollars, our Department partnered with the Governor’s office and organizations like Helios to ensure all educators – including those in special education - could add necessary skills to their toolbox to thrive in a virtual teaching environment.
With this investment in training our teacher workforce, 7,726 teachers took courses such as “Serving Students with Special Needs Online” through ASU’s Virtual Teacher Institute to enhance online student engagement. An additional 1,400 teachers participated for free in the annual Math Educator conference organized by UofA’s Center for the Recruitment and Retention of Mathematics Teachers.
Knowing how impactful a highly qualified teacher can be, I was proud to support the State Board of Education’s decision to create a new pathway for certified general education teachers to receive their special education certification. This change has added nearly 40 educators who are now dual certified in Special Education.
Yet, there is more work to do. We must increase the number of college students entering special education preparation programs to keep up with rising demands, which is why the Arizona Department of Education partnered with ASU and the Foundation for Blind Children to support the creation of a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Special Education with an emphasis on Visual Impairment.
The Foundation for Blind Children has been particularly helpful in our statewide efforts to support students with disabilities and students in special education programs. With the support of our Department, the Foundation for Blind Children serves 2,000 students who are blind and visually impaired in the state – and they had a lot of challenges to overcome during periods of distance learning.
But they adapted quickly, mailing students printed materials that were converted into braille, sending story boxes filled with lesson-related items, and transforming online lessons to make them overly descriptive and verbal.
The Foundation's educators and paraprofessionals were so successful, they began hosting webinars to share their knowledge and expertise with over 1,600 educators and parents from all over the country.
These stories demonstrate that Arizona’s teacher shortage does not reflect a lack of talent – it reflects our working conditions. Too many exceptional teachers have been burned out by our overcrowded classrooms, non-competitive pay, and a lack of essential resources to serve students in special education.
We could not afford to lose a single educator at the start of 2020 – but the demands of navigating a classroom in a pandemic have exacerbated the strain on our workforce.
Ultimately, that strain – and the loss of qualified educators – impacts our students – at a time when they most need our support and care.
Unfortunately, the reality of the high spread of COVID-19 and its impact on in-person learning has meant that there are students with disabilities who did not receive their typical, necessary services. As more of our in-person classrooms reopen, students with disabilities will need additional targeted supports to meet critical pieces of their individualized education plans.
Thankfully, our public schools have systems in place for educators and families to work together to determine if compensatory services are needed to make up for lost time.
Delivering compensatory services requires highly qualified educators and professionals equipped with the necessary tools to support students' unique needs. Anticipating this as a critical need, the Arizona Department of Education has set aside $5 million of CARES Act funding to absorb some of the financial costs for schools to provide compensatory educational services.
While this federal relief funding allows schools to enact targeted supports for students, it is one-time funding specific to pandemic-related expenses. Our public schools will not be able to stretch those dollars to cover gaps in their budgets easily.
Without sustainable funding, the experience of students in special education will be limited. It has always cost more to provide a high-quality education to students with learning obstacles, which has only become more apparent during COVID-19.
This is why I support Senator Engel’s bill SB1189, which would provide a much-needed sustainable increase to special education funding and appropriate $5,000,000 to the Extraordinary Special Education Needs Fund. SB1189 passed the Senate Education Committee last week, and I encourage the legislature to pass this bill on to Governor Ducey.
We must provide this sustainable funding to public schools, especially to ensure that ALL students have the tools and resources to achieve college and career readiness.
If we don’t, our students will continue to lose out.
Particularly for our students in special education, those investments must start at an early age. Ask any special education professional, and they will tell you early intervention is critical to setting the stage for future positive outcomes.
Our Exceptional Student Services team regularly hears from parents who share their success stories with early childhood education and intervention. In Lakeisha Smith's classroom at Faith North in the Phoenix Elementary School District, students with disabilities are continually engaged in activities that boost their social-emotional skills, helping them respond to situations appropriately.
These engaging lessons help students acquire essential early language, literacy, and communication skills. One family shared that Ms. Smith's dedication to supporting vital skill development has ensured that their student continues to grow despite the challenges of learning amid a pandemic.
Data from the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy indicates that access to high-quality early childhood programs, like Ms. Smith's classroom, reduced the likelihood of special education placement in the third grade by 39 percent. Yet, our state does not fund prekindergarten programs, leaving many families and students unprepared.
That's why bills like Representative Sierra's HB2015, which provides funding for pre-k programs, are essential to advancing all students and providing them a foundation for success. Thank you to the Committee for passing this bill, and I hope our youngest learners can count on your support when you vote on the Floor.
By fully-funding preschool in Arizona, we can offer all students a head start in developing appropriate social-emotional skills, as well as their advancing their academics. As Ms. Smith’s families know a strong foundation in social-emotional learning can go a long way.
I've seen that success firsthand when I was a speech-language pathologist alongside school psychologist Lisa Magee. When we worked together, Ms. Magee regularly met with teachers and staff to implement the Kimochis curriculum.
This evidence-based program helps schools build a positive school environment using character-based communication tools. Programs like Kimochis add to students’ academic toolkit, ensuring they become well-rounded learners and leaders. Now at Amphitheater Public Schools, Ms. Magee continues to center student social-emotional growth by providing these services virtually on Zoom.
By providing $43 million to fund the School Safety Program, we can build on the success of educators like Ms. Smith and Ms. Magee and give all students access to professionals who advance their mental health and wellbeing.
Predictable, sustainable funding allows our schools and districts to plan their budgets to hire and fairly compensate every professional that contributes to special education and expand on the innovative work already occurring in our special education programs and classrooms.
The challenges presented by COVID-19 has meant that learning looks different this year. And as a speech-language pathologist who worked in special education, I can confidently say there is so much opportunity in learning differently. And, through this trying time, our schools have proven just that.
Patagonia Public Schools' special education director and teacher Ann Gortarez embraced the opportunity to reimagine their Room 409 resource room into an online support center for all students in special education and their families. The virtual Room 409 is open from dusk to dawn, five days a week, allowing students and families to receive help with classwork or homework at any time. Using flexible scheduling, Ms. Gortarez and her staff regularly join general education virtual sessions to support their students, which they follow up with secondary lessons and guided practice in Room 409.
Beyond providing the normalcy typically found in the Room 409 classroom, Ms. Gortarez and her team have provided a virtual environment where students are thriving. Students' skills in learning how and when to use online supports like assistive technology have accelerated in this new environment. And the students' boosted confidence in using these tools will stay with them when returning to in-person learning.
Imagine if we provided all public schools the resources to expand on their successes. Imagine if all schools had the means to hire a full range of special education staff instead of having education professionals take on multiple roles. Imagine if all families had access to reliable, affordable internet, allowing them to access not just their learning but a range of professional and social activities.
Imagine if all students in special education had access to a fully staffed and fully resourced Room 409.
That is a reality that could be possible for our schools. When the state sits on a 1 billion dollar rainy day fund and nearly a 2 million dollar surplus, the possibilities are endless – but they do not start with tax cuts or subverting the will of Arizona voters who have consistently voted in support of the public schools.
As I shared in my State of Education address, this is a unique moment, and how we respond to it will be covered in history books by future generations of students. They will examine how we responded to this unprecedented crisis and how those decisions now impact their everyday lives.
Today, there is an opportunity to ensure that when we look 10, 15 years into the future, we see students of all backgrounds, abilities, and experiences working alongside each other, in fully staffed classrooms with educators equipped to integrate academic, social, emotional learning technology and fully-funded wraparound services that uplift families and communities.
I look forward to building that future together.
You can view a recording of her remarks here: azleg.gov/videoplayer/?eventID=2021021069.