IDEA To Give States More Leeway in Spec. Ed. Staff

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With the number of students in need of special education services increasing, many school districts are finding that their pools of certified personnel aren't keeping up.

Some educators were hoping the recent reauthorization of the nation's main special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, would help ease their problems.

But while the reauthorization--set to go into effect this week--will clarify guidelines for recruiting and training special education staff members, states will still carry the burden of finding and training qualified employees.

"It didn't do anything that's directly going to result in more certified teachers," said Jay A. McIntire, a policy specialist with the Council for Exceptional Children, a special education advocacy group in Reston, Va.

"We won't know until states apply the law" whether the modifications will help ease the shortages, he added.

Mr. McIntire and others agree, though, that the reauthorization includes some needed changes that will help school officials hire and train staff members to provide appropriate special education services.

A study of 39 urban school districts last year found that more than two-thirds cited an immediate need for special education teachers, and many resorted to hiring noncertified employees to fill the void. ("Urban Districts Pressed To Find Teachers, Survey Says," May 29, 1996.)

Rural districts often have the same problems, educators say.

Personnel Elements

One reauthorization provision grants something of a reprieve to educators in regions with shortages by allowing schools to hire the most qualified people available who are making progress toward certification.

Those applicants would have a three-year window to complete training and receive state certification.

The method has been in practice in many regions, but has never been explicitly written into federal law, said Myrna R. Mandlawitz, the special assistant for government relations for the National Association for State Directors of Special Education in Alexandria, Va.

Knowing they are backed by federal law, school officials will likely feel more comfortable with hiring and training staff members whose certification is not yet completed, she added.

"It gives states something to fall back on," Ms. Mandlawitz said.

"Somebody's got to be in the classroom, or else students get nothing," Mr. McIntire added. "This seems like a rational way" to recruit and train personnel within a strict time line.

Under the IDEA reauthorization language, states also would be able to use federal discretionary state improvement money for special education to write certification standards consistent with those of other states.

Today, a major ingredient in schools' staffing problems is a lack of "portable" standards in the field.

Requirements for certification vary widely between states, making it hard for teachers and others to move across state lines without undergoing lengthy retraining.

Revamping the IDEA turned into a long, cumbersome process when advocates for the disabled clashed with educators over some central provisions.

It took lawmakers nearly two years to finally pass a bill that was palatable to every side. ("House, Senate Easily Approve Spec. Ed. Bill," May 21, 1997.)

After some debate, lawmakers chose not to drop the requirement that states have a comprehensive system of personnel development for special education employees. Instead, they attempted to simplify the legislative language on the systems.

Disability-rights and special education advocates had urged Congress to keep the personnel-development system mandate, saying that students would suffer without appropriately trained staff members in their classrooms. Such systems are designed to ensure that states have an adequate supply of qualified personnel.

"The CPSD requirements of the law are essential," said Stevan J. Kukic, the director of special education for Utah.

"Without ongoing, effective personnel development, students with disabilities will not receive a free, appropriate public education" as the law requires, Mr. Kukic added.

The measure also will expand the personnel standards to mandate that paraprofessionals be trained and supervised in accordance with state law.

President Clinton was scheduled to sign the IDEA reauthorization into law at a ceremony this week.

Most of the reauthorization changes will go into effect immediately, according to a spokesman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

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