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Inside Underfunded Special Education Classrooms

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New Mexico’s Public Education Department lost a case in federal courtlast month for underfunding state special education programs. And a state audit revealed that the PED should have spent an additional $110-million dollars between fiscal years 2010 through 2012. Some parents and teachers say there’s a shortage of special education staff.

One of the walls in Jefferson Middle School's vision-impaired tech room is jam-packed with braille textbooks and expensive equipment. Teacher Sharon Dandy pointed out black machines, braille typewriters, on every table. "These braille writers are about $650. Everything is so expensive for us."

For Jefferson’s Assistant Principal Geraldine Tuttle, the special education funding shortfall is not her main concern.

“PED changes lots of things,” Tuttle said. “We just kind of do what we have to do. We have to meet the needs of the kids as best as we can.”

According to state law, special education classes have mandated student-to-teacher ratios that depend on the amount of special education a student needs. A teacher working with students with maximum needs is supposed to teach no more than eight students at a time. A teacher that teaches students with minimal needs can work with as many as 35 students.

Naomi Sandweiss, executive director of Parents Reaching Out, said she hears from concerned parents from around the state. They tell her they’re worried their children aren’t receiving enough classroom resources. And the most desired resource? A trained professional.

“We mostly hear from families who have issues with special education services,” Sandweiss said. “One of the major issues is availability of personnel.”

Over the course of several months, the Public Education Department repeatedly declined multiple requests for an interview. But according to the department’s website, in the 2012-2013 school year, there was the equivalent of over 2,400 full-time teachers working in special education statewide. Meanwhile, there were over 46,000 students enrolled in special education classes, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Quick calculation: That’s one teacher for every 19 students. The Albuquerque school district job portal listed 61 vacancies for special education teachers last week.

This information is not surprising to mother Michelle Frechette.

“I mean, we always underfund what we need in staff,” Frechette said. Two of her three children were in the special education program. Her first child was diagnosed with developmental delays, and the other is in the gifted program.

“It seems like all of our schools are struggling in terms of having the right number of teachers in the class at the time,” she said. What if the state Education Department provided enough money? Would that mean that special education students would get more help in class?

“Well yeah, because you need cash for there to be humans, ” Frechette said. 

Frechette’s first child went to Petroglyph Elementary where Holly Smith is the head special education and gifted teacher. Smith said they try to keep classes small. She pointed to the developmental preschool as an example. “There are supposed to only have eight kids,” she said. “We get stacked. There’ll be sometimes nine or 10 kids.”

In the larger classrooms, it’s harder for kids to stay focused, Smith said. It’s easier to help students concentrate when there’s more staff – like educational assistants.

“I can’t even say enough about how essential they are,” she said. “The district, unfortunately, has budget restraints and things like that. So over the years, we have seen the number of educational assistants decrease.”

At Petroglyph and in most Albuquerque public schools, educational assistants are shared between classrooms. And Smith said there aren’t enough. According to the APS job search website, nearly 60 percent of educational assistant positions are in special education departments. Smith says special education teachers at Petroglyph Elementary exceed their caseloads and teach more students than they are supposed to be teaching.

“Honestly, we have the best staff,” Smith said. “They don’t complain. They take every kid. They’re like, ‘We have room for one more.' ” 

Special education teachers say they’re maintaining the quality of education for their students. Still, Sandweiss of Parents Reaching Out said people should not let teachers and parents face the funding crisis alone.

“My hope would be that there’s outrage about a lack of funding for a part of our population," Sandweiss said. “Everybody, every person, needs to make their voice heard on this one.”

Sandweiss said it’s not just an issue for parents of special education students. It’s universal. 

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