By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher: data-driven, observant, organized, flexible, creative, communicative.
As principal of Nye Early Childhood Center, Behenna Griffith and her staff serve a unique population of students. In addition to being Santa Fe Public Schools’ only site dedicated exclusively to early childhood education, about half of the students enrolled at Nye have disabilities, more than double the statewide average.
As a result, Nye’s special education teachers have to lead a classroom while adjusting their teaching to each child’s needs and change course when a particular technique isn’t working, Behenna Griffith said. The principal described her staff as teachers and case workers at the same time — but without extra pay.
“It’s kind of like somebody wearing different hats, and you just keep putting on a different hat and trying something new. They’re juggling a lot,” she said.
Special education teachers’ compensation may be about to change to reflect that juggling. A preliminary state budget proposal from the Legislative Finance Committee, as well as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s budget recommendation, both include money to offer special education teachers higher pay than their general education peers.
The committee’s budget proposal sets aside $60 million for the increased pay, to be disbursed over four years, while the governor is recommending a one-time $16 million allocation to increase pay for special education teachers. The increased pay, coupled with an initiative to standardize Individualized Education Programs across the state, will be a boon for the state’s more than 50,000 students who receive special education services, said Public Education Department Cabinet Secretary Arsenio Romero.
“We’re looking at pay differentials for special education teachers, to where we can really encourage them to come back and want to be special education teachers,” he said in an interview. “This would have a dramatic positive impact on the special ed classrooms.”
Behenna Griffith thinks it’s “about time” the state raised pay to encourage special education practitioners join and stay in their field. Santa Fe Public Schools tried something similar earlier this school year. In August, the district rolled back plans to outsource staffing for four intensive behavioral support classrooms, opting instead to offer hefty stipends to draw 13 special education professionals already in the district to the positions.
The Individualized Education Program, which is a plan for providing services to students with disabilities required under federal law, is an essential component of a special education teacher’s job. Updating these regularly, tracking students’ progress and coordinating services with providers all mean additional work for special education teachers, Behenna Griffith said.
“Every single one of my teachers works beyond their contract,” she said. “I know regular ed teachers work beyond their contracts, but special ed teachers just have more.”
The process for creating an Individualized Education Program varies between the state’s roughly 89 public school districts and 100 charter schools, said Romero, who has been through that process many times — as a teacher, as a school administrator and as the father of an eighth grader with autism.
“There [are] really … 189 different ways that we do IEPs,” he said.
This lack of uniformity means teachers have to learn a new Individualized Education Program process whenever they move from one school or district to another, Behenna Griffith said.
Across New Mexico, nearly 300 special education teaching positions are vacant, according to a 2023 study published by New Mexico State University’s Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation and Policy Center.
But the problem isn’t just that New Mexico doesn’t have enough special education teachers; it’s also that the state’s special education teachers aren’t staying in their specialty. Some 1,300 teachers holding special education licenses across the state are teaching general education courses, according to a report released by the Legislative Finance Committee in November.
To Behenna Griffith, it’s understandable that many teachers holding licenses in special education choose to teach outside of their speciality, especially since Nye’s teachers must hold licenses in both special education and early childhood education, a requirement that often entails going back to school.
“If they have to go to school to hold this job — and they could go get a job down the street as a regular ed teacher and not have to go school — they should be paid differently,” she said.
That’s exactly what lawmakers are considering this legislative session.
A recommendation from the Legislative Finance Committee appropriates $300 million to a new Government Accountability and Improvement Trust Fund, an expendable trust intended to pilot programs. Of that, $60 million is earmarked for higher pay for special education teachers.
In its budget proposal, the committee framed the $60 million as one more way New Mexico is responding to the 2018 Yazzie/Martinez district court decision, in which a judge determined the state failed to provide sufficient education to several groups of students, including students with disabilities.
A longtime advocate for children with disabilities, Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview she supports the pay differentials as a means to recruit and retain sorely needed special education teachers.
“I know there’s going to be some pushback from folks who don’t like to pay for shortage areas [like special education], as they call them,” Thomson said. “But I always say, will you walk into a fine jewelry and say, ‘Give the me platinum and diamond for the cubic zirconia and silver price?’ That’s not how it works.”
The state’s proposed education budgets also include one-time funding for special education initiatives, money that will, in part, go toward standardizing Individualized Education Program processes statewide. The goal, Romero said, is to ensure teachers across the state are “speaking the same language” when it comes to the programs.
“This will be a huge benefit for students, but it’s also going to be a huge benefit for teachers,” he said. “It can be very frustrating — whether you’re a special ed teacher or whether you are a regular ed teacher — to make sure that you’re meeting those needs.”
However, how much the state will set aside for special education initiatives still depends on who you ask. The Legislative Finance Committee and Legislative Education Study Committee both recommended $5 million, while the governor’s budget recommendation offers up $6 million for the task.
More state funding hasn’t improved outcomes for children with disabilities in the past: A legislative report released in November found that, despite enormous increases in educational investments over the past decade, disabled students’ proficiency rates were worse in 2022 than 2013.
Still, Romero argued that standardizing Individualized Education Programs and drawing more special education teachers with higher pay will move the needle for students with disabilities, even though past increases in funding didn’t accomplish that task.
“There has been additional funding that’s gone into this, and, again — from both a school leader and parent point of view — we haven’t gotten the results that we wanted,” he said. “I’m very confident now that we’re on the right track to be able to do this.”
In Tara Hughes’ pre-K classroom at Nye Early Childhood Center last week, students with disabilities learned and played alongside their peers.
Some of the children sat around a table, linking together colorful straws into long swords. Others organized a tiny stable full of plastic horses. And still others shaped kinetic sand into lumpy forms.
In the class of 18 students, six — or a third — have Individualized Education Programs.
As she guided students’ playtime Friday, Hughes, who was chosen as New Mexico’s 2023 Teacher of the Year, argued in favor of the pay differentials for special education teachers. It would properly compensate special education teachers for their expertise, she said, and safeguard against teachers leaving the profession in their first five years due to burnout.
“I think it’s been a long time coming,” Hughes said.