A Special Education Reboot

Arizona students with disabilities faced glaring achievement gaps on every measure long before the pandemic shutdown. But now our state has the chance to reboot special education and reimagine learning for students with disabilities.

Arizona’s new state agenda should include the following five actions.

1. Dispel Myths and Raise Expectations

Most special education students have no cognitive impairments that would prevent them from reaching the same level of learning as other students. Yet these students consistently experience heartbreaking academic outcomes fueled by misperceptions and low expectations.

 Steps for Policymakers

●   The Arizona Department of Education (ADE) should identify all the goals and metrics used to monitor the state’s progress toward improving outcomes for all students. This process should include all federal reporting and result in a public-facing annual report. Further, the data should be broken out by disability.

●   To begin a statewide conversation that addresses existing shortcomings, the Arizona Superintendent of Instruction should deliver an annual State of Special Education report to the State Board of Education, the Legislature, and the Governor’s Office.

 2. Expand Innovation at the School Level

Arizona is making encouraging strides toward expanding innovation at the school level. H.B. 2448 introduced this past session could help give schools the flexibility they need to redesign learning for all students. Governor Ducey has also established $1 million for innovation microgrants through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. Two microgrant awardees targeted their proposals to the support of their students with disabilities. The applications reflected two very different schools with very different approaches, yet both held the same commitment to a robust research agenda that can spur replication.

Steps for Policymakers

●       Pass Representative Michelle Udall’s H.B. 2448 to give schools the flexibility they need to implement new student-centered programs and strategies.

●       Future state grant funding should include grants dedicated to better serving students with disabilities. Likewise, the federal government can include incentives in new funding sources to stimulate innovation in special education.

3. Fund Students, Not Disabilities

Arizona’s current K-12 education funding formula assumes students with disabilities are evenly distributed throughout the state. However, our state’s robust school choice environment means some schools have more students with disabilities than others. It’s also troublesome that Arizona’s special education funding formula does not recognize the diversity of students’ disabilities and overlooks the true costs of serving them. Our state weights its per-pupil funding based on diagnosis. This archaic approach assumes all students with a certain disability need identical services and supports. Moreover, the funding weights are woefully behind in covering the actual costs schools incur. 

Steps for Policymakers

●       Education funding should follow students to the schools which are serving them.

●       The state should fund students based on the services and levels of intensity they need to succeed rather than a disability label.

4. Benchmark Progress Toward Postsecondary Goals

Closing the achievement gap is essential, yet insufficient on its own. Arizona must also expand access to postsecondary opportunities for students with disabilities and support their success. The foray into postsecondary education represents a new frontier for many individuals with disabilities, especially those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But today’s parents and students expect more.

Steps for Policymakers

●       ADE should leverage IDEA funds to launch a Postsecondary Network for Students with Disabilities, in partnership with universities and community colleges. This network would identify obstacles preventing students with disabilities from accessing career and technical education, dual enrollment, and postsecondary opportunities and would promote ways to increase participation.

●       The state must establish postsecondary goals for students with disabilities and incorporate them into the state’s Progress Meter and accountability conversations.

●       ADE should partner with the Board of Regents and AZTransfer to develop a strategic plan to incorporate students with disabilities in all future reporting. There should be no data with asterisks that exclude special education students.

5. Increase Workforce Participation  

In 2017, the Governor issued an Executive Order in support of Employment First, supporting  competitive, integrated employment as the expectation for Arizonans with a disability. Students with disabilities are a valuable asset Arizona must develop to help meet state education and employment goals.

Steps for Policymakers

●       All state agencies participating in Employment First should provide an annual report to the Governor that includes goals and metrics, accomplishments and recommendations– administrative and legislative–that would facilitate progress.

●       As partnerships between business and education strengthen, ensure students with disabilities are prioritized. Every program created to enhance work skills for high school students should also include opportunities for students with disabilities.

Education, business and elected officials agree that Arizona’s approach to special education must change. The prospect of additional CARES Act funding gives our state a long-awaited opportunity to introduce a new approach to special education and ensure all Arizona students have the opportunity to succeed.

 This is Arizona’s moment to act on behalf of students with disabilities. Let’s not waste it.

Karla Phillips-Krivickas is the Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy for KnowledgeWorks. She has over 20 years of national and state education policy experience in legislative, executive and non-profit leadership roles. As a mother of a child with a disability, Karla is channeling her experience and opportunities to passionately advocate for students with disabilities. She’s on Twitter at @azkarla. 

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