Faculty members advocate for those who can't advocate for themselves

Stephanie Koons
June 02, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Kathleen McKinnon and Jonte Taylor have a passion for their work that is evident both in and out of the classroom. The two associate professors of education (special education) not only educate the next generation of special education teachers, but also advocate for much-needed resources for their field.

“It’s always been a field where you advocate for people who can’t advocate for themselves,” said Mary Catherine Scheeler, associate professor of education (special education) and professor-in-charge of the program in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education (EPCSE).

During the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education (HECSE) Summit they attended in January in Washington, D.C., McKinnon and Taylor made about 70 visits to Capitol Hill, where they met with U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey (R) and Bob Casey (D) and four members of the U.S. House of Representatives, attended panel discussions and networked with other government officials.

“Clearly, we advocate for more funding and more teaching programs and doctoral programs in special education,” said Taylor, who has been a member of HECSE for four years. “Advocacy is always a long-range goal,” Taylor said. “We advocate for everyone in the whole state.”

One of the main benefits of this type of networking, McKinnon said, is being able to form connections with government officials who are in a position to influence policy decisions.

“That’s the idea — that you make those connections so if they have a question about special education, they have a place where they can go in Pennsylvania,” said McKinnon, who is in her third year as a HECSE member.

One of the main issues addressed at the summit was the overall decline in teachers certified in special education in Pennsylvania and in the U.S. in general.

According to a fact sheet prepared by HECSE for the January summit, there was a 17% decline in the number of special education teachers between 2005 and 2012, and a simultaneous increase (of 400,000) in the number of students receiving special education services.

Since 2009, there has been a 19% reduction in the number of special education doctoral programs, and a 17% reduction in the production of new special education doctoral degrees between 2012 and 2017.

Taylor and McKinnon focused their summit conversations on the appropriations from the 2020 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies bill for funding personal preparation grants for master and doctoral level special education programs.

“We really talked most about the doctoral level funding because the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) projection for this year is that the appropriations will not include funding for doctoral-level training grants,” McKinnon said. “The lack of federal funding for teacher preparation directly impacts higher education and school districts.”

In addition to making several recommendations for spending increases for special education programs under the bill, HECSE supports a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) with multiple provisions to recruit and retain candidates to become skilled educators.

According to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), the HEA is a federal law that governs the administration of federal higher education programs. First passed in 1965 to ensure that every individual has access to higher education, it is generally scheduled for reauthorization by Congress every five years to encourage progressive movement.

“It’s the policies that are going to make the changes. If we have an opportunity to advocate at the policy level, we want to do it.”

— Kathleen McKinnon

Due to the high demand for well-trained special educators, McKinnon said there has been an “alarming increase in emergency certifications in special education in recent years.”

Emergency certification is a “stop-gap measure” intended for situations when a district is in need of a teacher but a certified teacher is not available. An article on Special Education Guide’s website said Pennsylvania has two main routes to alternative certification.

The first is the Pennsylvania Teacher Intern Certification Program, which requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in the area in which an individual wants to be certified, as well as passing qualifying exams. Candidates take a full-time professional teaching position while completing an induction program with additional academic and testing requirements.

The second option is to earn a Passport to Teaching license issued by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. This permit grants candidates the ability to teach for one year while they complete the Point Park University alternative certification program, according to AllEducationSchools.com.

One of the faculty members’ main objectives at the HECSE conference, McKinnon said, was to emphasize to the legislators that Pennsylvania, with its educational resources, is well equipped to tackle the special education teacher shortage.

Out of the 164 four-year higher education institutions in the commonwealth, there are more than 50 that offer a special education program with “faculty who have dedicated their lives to train teachers.” In comparison, McKinnon said, there are only a handful of institutions in other states such as Virginia that offer comparable programs.

In addition to advocating for increased funding for programs, Taylor said, the HECSE conference provides a good opportunity “to get the scoop on federal funding for teacher training programs, so you know what grants to apply for or should prepare to apply for.”

Institutions such as the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and Institute of Educational Science (IES) bring in program directors to talk with the conference attendees about what programs they are funding and for how much, while answering questions about the process.

“It’s the policies that are going to make the changes,” McKinnon said. “If we have an opportunity to advocate at the policy level, we want to do it.”

The Higher Education Consortium for Special Education (http://hecse.net/) is a national organization representing more than 70 university programs that prepare doctoral level personnel for leadership roles in special education. HECSE member institutions work to ensure that preparation is informed by research and evidence-based practice, which has demonstrated positive outcomes for PK-12 students.

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Last Updated June 02, 2020