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State education department seeks to address special education teacher shortage

Washtenaw County voters approved a millage for special education in yesterday's election.
Washtenaw County voters approved a millage for special education in yesterday's election.

The Michigan Department of Education is offering an option to help school districts deal with what State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice calls a "critical shortage of special education teachers in many Michigan school districts." 

The MDE will allow a time limited waiver that enables a district to temporarily fill a vacancy in a special education classroom with a special education teacher whose specialty area - formally called an endorsement - differs from the classroom with an open slot.

The goal is to reduce reliance on substitute teachers in special education programs.

"Allowing for some flexibility will help districts better staff their classrooms and meet the needs of our students with disabilities," said Rice in a written statement.

"We're being given the flexibility to really put people in positions who are a right fit for the position and can support our students' needs," said Abby Cypher, executive director of the Michigan Association of Administrators of Special Education.

"We had a criticial shortage of special education teachers before COVID, but now we have an even more significant shortage," said Cypher. "And this is a short term solution that allows us to utilize other special education teachers in special education classrooms, instead of substitute teachers."

"Substitutes, while generous with their time and passion to support students, lack the necessary education and pedagogical knowledge to adequately teach students in need of specialized instruction and support," said Kanika Littleton, project director for the Michigan Alliance of Families, in a written statement. "These waivers will provide the needed flexibility to allow students access to trained, qualified special education teachers and are a critical step in improving outcomes for our students."

The MDE waiver is for one year with an option to renew. The school district needs to demonstrate that it has been unable to fill the open position with a special education teacher whose endorsement is a precise match.

Intermediate school districts and local school districts, both traditional public school and public school academies, are eligible to apply for a waiver. Special education programs that are eligible under the waiver include programs for students with cognitive impairments, emotional impairments, learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, physical and other health impairments, and severe multiple impairments.

Virginia Gordan has been a part-time reporter at Michigan Radio since fall 2013. She has a general beat covering news topics from across the state.
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