Do Special-Ed Students Need 'Special' Teachers? Not According to Arizona's SB 1317

Suzanne Tucker/
Imagine going to a doctor, learning you have brain damage, and being referred to a general practitioner instead of a neurologist.

That’s exactly what state lawmakers are proposing to do with special education, said one Phoenix mother when she learned of a bill working its way though the Arizona Senate.

The bill, SB 1317, would qualify any teacher with a credential to instruct “special-ed” children, kids with learning or physical disabilities.

“I think it’s a big mistake,” said Debra Mergner, whose son is graduating high school, partly thanks to special instruction he got for coping with Asperger’s syndrome.

“A special-ed teacher has a unique tool belt that they wear for teaching because they understand the exceptionality of each student. Regular teachers don’t have that.”

The Arizona Department of Education has taken a neutral position on the bill, but shares some of Mergner's concerns.

Earlier this month, SB 1317 flew through the Senate Education Committee unopposed. Rather, it was supported enthusiastically.

“This has got to be my most favorite bill coming out of the education committee,” Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee of north central Phoenix said before casting her vote.

Committee chairwoman Sylvia Allen, a Republican from Snowflake, said she introduced the bill because the state education department had interpreted the original law governing special instruction differently than intended.

SB 1317 was designed to clarify that the state wanted all along for all teachers, not just those with specialized credentials, to help kids with disabilities.

But the proposal comes as Arizona's schools continue to face a financial crunch. Teachers are overburdened already and small school districts have a harder time finding and paying specialist instructors. Nobody is saying it openly, but freeing up general ed teachers to help with special-needs kids would save money.

Lawmakers of both major parties and a line of parents, educators, and special-education administrators all backed the change on grounds that it would help, not hurt, special-ed students.

Specialized teams will remain to build an individualized learning program for each student with unique needs. The special-education expert would stay on that team, but others would teach core classes such as math, science, history, or literature.

One supporter, Deer Valley Unified School District special-ed administrator Denise Lowell-Britt, used the medical metaphor, too.

“If we went to our GP at this moment, and our GP diagnosed us with some kind of heart condition, our GP would say, ‘My goodness, I need to send you to a specialist. I’m going to send you to a cardiologist,’” Lowell-Britt testified.

The specialist in her analogy is the science or history teacher. She and others argued the bill would let teachers team up to provide better instruction of children with unique needs, rather than keeping instructors in their respective silos.

“They are general-ed students first and special-ed students second. Their disability does not define them,” Lowell-Britt said.

At issue for bill supporters is there are not enough special-education experts to go around, and they cannot be expected to teach core subjects as well as those who do it now.

“It’s time that we gave students with disabilities the education that they deserve,” Adam Leckie, Director of Exceptional Student Services at Florence Unified School District, told lawmakers.

Phoenix mom Debra Mergner isn’t buying it, and neither is the state education department,

They worry the proposal would only dilute the unique instruction needed by kids like Mergner's son, who she asked not to name.

“He would have probably had to repeat grades, I’m guessing. He’d have fallen behind,” she said. “I’m sure it would have done a number on his self-esteem.”

Mergner’s son needed about 10 special accommodations and specialized one-on-one tutoring, she said.

It’s like this. Consider a completely blind student. That student can only read The Great Gatsby with braille or by listening to an audiobook. But if the American literature teacher doesn’t know how to get appropriate materials the child can understand, then F. Scott Fitzgerald may get lost in translation.

"That's a legitimate concern," Arizona Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat said.

"We want to protect our students and we believe special educations should be placed in the hands of specialists," he added.  "This is saying anybody can do that. We definitely have concerns about that."

Some physical or learning impairments can be invisible to the untrained eye. Asperger’s can be like that.

Mergner said her son struggled with reading comprehension at an early age. It took a specialized reading program to help him learn, and it worked.

“My fear is that he wouldn’t get that now. It’s opening Pandora’s box,” Mergner said. “I worry significantly for kids who can’t be in a general-education environment that this will be disastrous. They won’t know what to do. That’s frightening.”
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Sean Holstege is the editor of Phoenix New Times. He's been a print news reporter for 35 years. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege