A sensitive education topic that's been simmering since last week was temporarily defused today when the Arkansas Department of Education
pulled a proposed rule change on special education (SPED)
teacher licensure from the agenda of the legislative Rules and Regs Committee
meeting scheduled for tomorrow.
The item will most likely be reviewed by the interim joint Education Committee
either at its July meeting or before. The rule change actually concerns several areas of teacher licensure, but the primary controversy is over SPED.
ADE's proposed change essentially would allow non-SPED teachers to become licensed to teach special education if they were able to pass the requisite Praxis
content-area test. School districts — especially rural ones — often have a difficult time hiring enough special ed teachers to meet their needs.
Current ADE licensure rules
allow a non-SPED teacher to teach special education on a provisional basis under certain circumstances, as long as he or she is working on completing the requisite university coursework to become a SPED teacher. The new rule would allow an existing teacher to skip the coursework requirement entirely and simply test out. Disability advocates fear that the change would water down standards for special ed instruction.
, a parent advocate and the director of the UA's Arkansas Autism Resource and Outreach Center, said "it’s all meant to address the shortage of special education teachers. But the shortage is not because the coursework is so strenuous or difficult. We have lots of licensed special ed teachers in the state; they just don’t want to teach, because they’re undervalued and overworked, and it’s a tough job. It’s not because they can’t get educated."
Varady said that coursework in SPED is needed not only for teachers to learn specialized techniques but also so that they can learn how to deal with the complexities of the special education system, which is subject to distinct federal requirements.
"Parents who have children with disabilities who are receiving SPED services know that’s a complex system. It’s hard for parents to navigate; sometimes it’s hard for teachers to navigate. There’s a whole separate division within the ADE that deals with this," Varady said.
At Monday's Education Committee meeting, lawmakers questioned ADE Commissioner Johnny Key
and others about the change — which evidently sailed through the State Board of Education
in May with little discussion. It was part of a larger package of other rules and attracted little public comment at the time, and perhaps little attention from the state board itself. After the board signed off on the rule, it headed to the Rules and Regs Committee for final legislative review, which was scheduled for Wednesday (tomorrow).
However, at the Monday hearing, the Education Committee asked that they get a chance to take a look at the change before Rules and Regs, in light of outcry from parents like Varady and other disability advocates.
, the ADE Assistant Commissioner of Human Resources, Educator Effectiveness and Licensure, told the education committee on Monday, "There is nothing in these rules that are intended to lessen the quality of education." Loosening licensure requirements is a matter of attempting to meet a critical shortage faced by districts, she said.