This piece originally appeared on Special Ed Post in September 2014. A link to the piece as it appeared on that site follows.
Employment with the School District of Philadelphia can take dedicated teachers to the brink of resignation. This is true of many large urban school districts. As if teaching in Philadelphia wasn’t difficult enough, the District has crafted a position seemingly purposed to drive out select teachers. This curious position is the Special Education Liaison.
The role of a Special Education Liaison (SEL) varies from district to district and from state to state. The position tends to exist in large districts with more special education students in more schools than administrators can manage. Though the title could suggest some link between a school and the community, the link more often is between a school and the district’s administration. Most SELs are involved in some way with overseeing special education protocol, either in one school or several. Their duties generally resemble those of administrators, however, SELs usually aren’t administrators. Using non-administrative employees to handle administrative tasks saves districts time and money.
Philadelphia stretches this value. As is the case in many districts, SELs in Philadelphia monitor a school’s compliance with special education law. They manage compliance issues at the school level, thus reducing the workload for administrators. Simultaneously, SELs absorb paperwork that would need to be handled otherwise by other special education teachers. These services are vital in districts with a high proportion of students with special needs, and are indispensible in districts burdened with special education litigation. Philadelphia wrestles with both.
In Philadelphia, SELs are teachers or counselors, not administrators. Most teach for part of the school day and have special education student caseloads. Few of Philadelphia’s SELs possess administrative certification. Their responsibilities are administrative, yet they lack administrative authority or pay. District-sanctioned training for the position has been absent for several years, though has returned as of this writing via a voluntary summer training module. Qualifications are nebulous, as are specific responsibilities. Philadelphia’s SELs often start the position with little notion of what to do or how to do it.
Consternation marks the job. SELs sometimes act as first-tier arbitrators between aggravated parents and the District. They pore over abstract paperwork and respond to administrative edicts. Their job hinges on deadlines, and they frequently must wait for others to complete tasks so deadlines can be met. Philadelphia’s SELs have the unenviable role of overseeing the work of union peers while lacking any authority over them. They languish with tasks unfamiliar to others in their buildings. Too often, they receive little guidance from Special Education Directors or other administrators. In defense of these parties, they may be too strained by legal cases or bureaucratic responsibilities to address an SEL’s concerns. This is a related and troubling issue. However, Directors and other administrators still need to make time-sensitive demands, which SELs simply must accept.
Rarely, if ever, does anyone seek to become an SEL in Philadelphia. Instead, principals either solicit for the position or assign someone to it. Principals will tap those who have been reliable and effective team members. Assigning someone to be SEL places such an employee in one of the least desirable positions in a school. For some SELs, this may feel like a sentencing for a job well done.
Directors and other administrators certainly have more difficult jobs than SELs have. However, incentives differ greatly. Those in genuine supervisory positions earn substantially more. In most cases, they have sought their positions. This is crucial. Almost every employee of the District set out to fill a specific role. Most SELs set out to be teachers or counselors, not quasi-administrators working for non-administrative pay.
Despite imbalances in jurisdiction, salary, training, clarity, support, and choice, Philadelphia’s SELs find themselves being a school’s special education point person. They cope with unsavory aspects of public education while foregoing many of its rewards. If this sounds overwhelming and unappealing, it should. The unwieldy nature of special education and the inherent bureaucracy of a large district make the position necessary. The human cost is severe. Capable teachers and counselors are given a thankless job likely to accelerate burnout. They travail for the sake of compliance, not education. For the foreseeable future, the School District of Philadelphia will need SELs. Addressing the issues creating this need is a topic for another article.