Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Yes, Rural Special Education is Different

Since my recent post asking the question, we have had good comments on the topic by Mitchell Rubenstein and Spedvet. I later learned that I would have an opportunity on March 13th to participate in a focused group discussion including Tracy Justesen, the new Secretary of OSERS, about rural special education issues. What a great opportunity. Here are some of the thoughts that I had in preparing for the meeting after consulting with some of my expert friends; the remainder of my thoughts will be included in the next post:
Much of rural America is also poor America. We certainly all recognize that poverty exists in urban ghettos and barrios, but poverty also is prevalent in rural Appalachia, in the rural south, in the less populated areas of the West, on Indian reservations and in many other rural and remote areas of the country. This has multiple negative effects:
Children show up for school hungry. It is extremely difficult for these kids to learn.
A person who might want to be a SpEd teacher in a poor area for altruistic reasons can do so in many urban areas. A similarly motivated person who wants to become a SpEd teacher in a rural area generally cannot do so without requiring his/her family to live in a poor area. Because the teacher and his/her family must live close enough to get to school, in rural parts of the country, the family must live in the poverty area. The urban teacher, on the other hand, can live in a non-poor area of the metro area and commute to the ghetto.
Poor areas also have very low tax bases resulting in very small budgets for school districts. The fewer the students, the less the resources that are available. In the rural areas of states that do not have uniform teacher pay, teachers are not paid well. In one state that I am familiar with, there are approximately fifty districts that do not offer health insurance for teachers. Against this backdrop, imagine the difficulty in attracting skilled special educators, let alone, HQTs to these schools. In many of these areas, related services providers are in high demand and command high prices. Related services are often provided by contractors who drive or are flown in for a few hours per week. OSEP could help by assisting with solutions for small rural schools concerning how to recruit, train and retain good related services staff to be available on a full time basis.

IDEA and NCLB were written with large metropolitan areas in mind. The State Education Agencies of the very small states, most of which contain large rural areas, have exactly the same responsibilities as those of the states with huge populations. The one size fits all logic is flawed.
I understand that some SEAs have as few as four staff members. They often have a hard time recruiting staff. Frequently even the LEAs or local school districts pay more to their employees. These rural states often have a very difficult time meeting the IDEA’04 requirements, especially with regard to the collecting and reporting of the State Performance Plan (SPP) and Annual Performance Report requirements. I think that we all concede the importance of accountability, but trying to generalize the 20 SPP indicators to small rural schools is extremely difficult at best and takes a lot of time, resources and energy away from educating kids.
Similarly, the Highly Qualified Teacher requirements of NCLB cause serious problems in rural areas. There are some rural school districts where the school district employs only one special education teacher. This one teacher teaches preschool through 12th grade covering all subjects and serving all disabilities. Imagine what these teachers would have to do to meet the HQT requirements. It should be noted that these teachers often have general education degrees as a condition of licensing, so they have pretty good subject matter knowledge, although maybe not in all subjects, but they also have access to other general ed teaching staff for subject matter knowledge –if they need it. Smaller rural areas need some flexibility from OSEP in applying the HQT and similar requirements. In addition programs such as federal scholarships and loan forgiveness should be implemented.

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