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Special Education Clarifications for the 2016-2017 School Year

Does Every Student Succeed with a Dually Certified Special Education Teacher?  The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Federal government’s reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, has made broad changes to many education policies, most of which remove federal requirements and expectations, redirecting them for state development and oversight.   One such change authorized through the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that any person employed as a special education teacher in elementary, middle or secondary school must:

  1. Have either obtained full certification as a special education teacher or passed the state’s special education teacher licensing examination and hold a license to teach in the state as a special education teacher;
  2. Not have had special education certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis; and
  3. Hold at least a bachelor’s degree.

The Every Student Succeeds Act also allows states to have stricter requirements than those listed above.  While nothing in Pennsylvania statutes or regulations establish criteria for special education certification that would require subject area certification, current Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) guidance does.  Specifically, PDE Certification Staffing Policy Guideline (CSPG) Number 61 defines the following requirements for special education certification:

  • A person holding a valid Pennsylvania certificate for Special Education PreK-8 (age 3-14) is qualified to teach all special education students from PreK through eighth grade. The holder must possess a valid Grades PreK-4, Grades 4-8, Early Childhood N-3, Elementary K-6, or Reading Specialist K-12 Instructional certificate.
  • A person holding a valid Pennsylvania certificate for Special Education 7-12 (ages 11-21) is qualified to teach special education students from grades seven through twelve. The holder must possess a valid secondary (7-12) subject area or Reading Specialist K-12 Instructional certificate.

The CPSG does not carry the weight, force, and effect of law; however, in practice it purports to establish enforceable expectations by PDE.  Therefore, caution and best practice suggest that Districts continue to ensure that special education teachers are dually certified, until further clarification from PDE.

Are Extended School Year (“ESY”) services considered relative to the graduation year of students with disabilities?  PDE issued a Basic Education Circular (“BEC”) in March 2016 to clarify graduation requirements for students with disabilities.  This March 2016 BEC is not technically a reflection of a change in federal or state law, but does serve to highlight how ESY factors into the duration of a school year for a student who is about to graduate.  According to this BEC, for students with disabilities who receive ESY, free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) includes the provision of ESY services during the summer subsequent to the school year during which student turned twenty-one.  Therefore, if a student turns twenty-one in December of 2016, and he qualifies for ESY, FAPE for him is the provision of special education services through to the end of the 2016-2017 school year as well as the provision of ESY services through Summer 2017.  If a student graduates at the conclusion of ESY with a regular high school diploma, a district should exit that student from special education services via a Notice of Recommended Educational Placement.

Through this BEC, PDE also clarifies a special education student’s right to be involved in commencement ceremonies versus his right to graduate.  PDE emphasized that for a student who has an IEP prescribing continued special education services beyond the fourth year of high school, including those services that would be provided through ESY services, a district must allow this student to participate in the commencement ceremony with his graduating class and receive a certificate of attendance, as long as he did, in fact, attend all four years of high school, and regardless of whether he has yet to complete the goals set in his IEP.   A district should not create a diploma for this student until he graduates with a regular diploma, which should be dated and awarded when the student actually graduates.

As always, if you have any questions regarding the Every Student Succeeds Act or you need further guidance on this subject, please contact the School Law Group at Stock and Leader.

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