Peoria Unified struggles to keep special education teachers

Enrollment grows, while attrition rate is 24% in southern schools

By Philip Haldiman
Independent Newsmedia

Special education student enrollment in the Peoria Unified School District has grown consistently in recent years, but the teacher force isn’t keeping up.

According to a recent audit, the number of special education teachers leaving the district’s southern elementary schools is nearly twice that of general education instructors.

The attrition rate for PUSD special education elementary school teachers in the south is 24%, according to a 2017 curriculum audit of the Special Education Program.

PUSD President Monica Ceja Martinez said healthy attrition rate for the public and private sector is about 12-13%.

While special education enrollment in PUSD has increased 7% since October 2015, up from 4,878 to 5,268 — or growth of about 400 students — the district has seen little to no increase in staffing.

Ms. Ceja Martinez said as the district considers how to fund future employees and what is best for PUSD kids, it needs to consider special education educators.

Voters will consider a 15% override in the November election that would fund the district’s maintenance and operations budget.

“Twenty-four percent is not good for student learning,” she said. “That is detrimental to our students and to the school climate.”

Peoria Unified School District teachers make eight to 20% less than comparable school districts in the Valley, according to a study commissioned by the district from Phoenix-based consulting firm, Heinfeld Meech.

Special Education Director Holly Harper said the main reason the attrition rate is higher with special education professionals is because the district does not offer competitive wages for specialties such as psychologists and speech pathologists who are in high demand and accepting jobs for better pay in the private sector or at hospitals.

Many special education teachers are working with contract agencies to be hired by school districts as a professional service rather than a staff position directly through a district.

Ms. Harper said the Special Education Department had one contracted teacher two years ago. Last year, there were four and 12-13 are anticipated this year.

“We have been using contracted physiologists and speech pathologists for years, but now a lot more teachers are contracted,” she said. “Contract agencies want to work with Peoria, and we have strong contracted teachers. It is an era we are living in.”

Ms. Harper said to help the situation the district this year added 14 new special education teachers for elementary schools and 12 new teachers for high schools. The district is in the process of filling those positions, which are funded through the maintenance and operations budget.

The district has also reduced the student-to-teacher ratio from 25 students to one teacher to 17 to 22 students per teacher, which will begin in the 2019-20 school year.

“We did look at that ratio which could be one of the reasons we have those teachers leaving,” Ms. Harper said.

Governing board member Judy Doane said she is happy new people are being hired. She supports more  educators because special education classrooms are too large.

“I am especially interested in the compensation issue right now. I have been visiting the classrooms right now, and talking to the teachers, it has been a serious stress on them,” Ms.Doane said. “Many special needs students shut down when they have to have a new teacher. They regress very badly. So this is an area in regards to student learning and success we really need to take a look at.”

Special education provides eligible students with specially designed instruction to meet their unique learning needs and access to general education.

The district serves a wide variety of special education students with disabilities ranging from health impairments to those with vision and hearing impairments.

Students with a specific learning disability or students with a speech or language impairment make up more than half of special education students at PUSD.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism are among the fastest disorders on the rise primarily due to identification.

Ms. Harper said the special education population makes up 14% of total PUSD enrollment, which is consistent with national averages.

“Nationwide it is increasing as well and expected to continue to have an upward swing,” she said. “Our numbers are going to continue to grow.”

The district is working on phase 2 of the Heinfeld Meech compensation study which will focus on teacher retention and attraction. The study will likely be completed mid-2020, but a firm date has not yet been set.

Ms. Ceja Martinez suggested looking at loan forgiveness as a way to retain teachers.

She said under federal law, special education teachers are eligible for student loan forgiveness up to $17,500. Staff is looking into this possibility.

“There are ways to get loan forgiveness,” she said. “Can general education teachers who support special education students qualify for the same forgiveness?”

Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697,, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.



The Peoria Unified School District Governing Board approved a 15% override to be considered by voters in November. It would allow the district to increase its maintenance and operations budget by 2% to fund positions such as teachers, physiologists, speech pathologists, assistant principals and school nurses.

The community approved a 13% override in November 2015, in which a homeowner with a home value of $100,000 pays $145 in taxes annually. Under the proposed 15% override, a homeowner with a home value of $100,000 would pay $168 annually.

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