Special Education Task Force Update

shutterstock_110530274In Arkansas, about one out of every 10 students uses special education services in our K-12 system.  We believe that all children should have quality educational experiences regardless of income, geography, or disability. Because of that belief, AACF supported and testified before the House and Senate Education Committees for the creation of a Special Education task force during the 2015 legislative session. The task force became a reality thanks to Act 839 of 2015.

Members of the task force were appointed by Governor Asa Hutchinson and include: parents of special education students, special education teachers, disability rights advocates, legislators, Arkansas Department of Education representatives, and other special education experts. Arkansas Advocates has a seat on that task force.

Since August, we have met monthly to take a deep dive into the needs of special education students in Arkansas with initial recommendations and an update on the task force’s activities due in February. (The final report is due in September).

Tomorrow, the task force will start the new year discussing initial recommendations.

Many data points and a lot of information have been shared with the task force by the Bureau of Legislative Research, the Arkansas Department of Education and experts from the task force. Here are some of the most notable:

  • While only 27% of special education students who took regular assessments scored proficient in literacy in 2014, 66% of students who took an alternative assessment or portfolio-based assessment were deemed proficient in literacy.
  • In NAEP score comparisons, special education students scored lower in reading and math than special education students in surrounding states.
  • Special Education teachers and parents on the task force expressed that they feel overwhelmed with paperwork; parents feel frustrated with the paperwork too. But, Arkansas parents and teachers aren’t the only ones that feel this way. Other states are struggling with the challenges of the IEP process.
  • Educators on the task force expressed that the student/teacher ratio was too high. They also mentioned that they would be able to cut their workload and focus their attention more on students if they had smaller ratios.
  • Special education is especially impacted by the teacher shortage. Creating a pathway for paraprofessionals to become teachers was brought up as one way to approach the shortage.
  • Time out of the classroom impacts student performance for special education students. The Arkansas Department of Education found that 20% of students who spent 1-10 days out of the classroom for disciplinary reasons were proficient in literacy, while only 12% of those who spent more than 10 days out of the classroom were proficient.

During the December meeting, Disability Rights of Arkansas (DRA) shared more contextual information based on the special education students and parents they represent. They reported that:

  • Some districts have been reluctant to identify students with a disability. DRA reported that some parents have heard negative things from school personnel like “your child is too smart for an IEP” or “You don’t really want your child in special education, do you?”
  • When it comes to discipline, there is an over-reliance on corporal punishments (spankings) and improper use of restraint/seclusions
  • Some schools are not properly implementing IEPs and Behavioral Support Plans
  • There are students being improperly placed into Alternative Learning Environments

Based on the data and information presented, it is evident that teacher-student ratios and discipline practices on special education students impact the classroom experience and student performance.  On average in Arkansas schools, there are about 18 students to every special education teacher with as many as 25 students in some schools.  In regards to discipline, the data tells us that students spending time out of school hurts their learning. We hope that the task force includes in its recommendations:

  • things that reduce teacher workload (like reducing the student/teacher ratio to allow teachers to give students a more individualized experience and creating a program to help paraprofessionals become teachers)
  • ways for schools to reduce reliance on disciplinary practices that stifle student success

Next week, we will share what recommendations the task force has developed to improve the special education experience for teachers, parents, and students.