School

When Your Kid Has No Teachers at All

A classroom with empty desks
Unused desks are seen in an empty elementary school classroom at Hazelwood Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky, on Jan. 11. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

For the past few months, Dylan Peers McCoy, who covers education for the Indianapolis public radio station WFYI, has been hearing stories of parents who show up at their local public school only to find out their kids have no teachers—and these missing teachers work in special education. McCoy knew special educators often struggle with paperwork, along with the stress of managing kids with complicated needs. But it wasn’t till she got a few teachers on the phone that she realized exactly how their burnout was snowballing. Having so many missing colleagues meant that the teachers who got left behind were fending for themselves. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with McCoy about why schools around the country are struggling to keep teachers in special education classrooms. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Special education was born back in the 1970s—that’s when federal laws were passed requiring public schools to educate kids with disabilities. Since then, schools have professionals like speech therapists and organized dedicated classrooms, as well as integrated, ones to help disabled students learn. But the story of this special education staff shortage begins with a broken promise: In exchange for requiring schools to be more inclusive, the federal government promised to pay 40 percent of the cost of special education. That’s not how things worked out.

Dylan Peers McCoy: For fiscal year 2020, the federal government contributed about 13 percent of the excess costs of special education, according to data from the National Education Association—so, a fraction of what the government said. I spend a lot of time talking to CFOs and other folks within school districts, and when you ask them about the pressures on their budgets, the cost of special education comes up over and over again.

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This underfunding is coupled with lots of red tape. Unlike general ed teachers, special ed teachers need to fill out education plans for their students and closely monitor their progress. This government-mandated reporting is one more reason it can be hard for even trained professionals to stick around.

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The special ed teacher shortage looks different than some of the other teacher shortages we see. A lot of general education teachers are licensed in special education, but those teachers are not going into special education classrooms. The prototypical example I’ve heard from people was: Someone gets right out of college, they have their licenses in elementary and special education, and they just want a job, so the jobs they might have the easiest time getting are these special ed jobs—because we are so desperate for teachers in those positions.

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But then they don’t stay.

Exactly. So you get a teacher. They do that job for a while. But then when another position opens up to teach third grade, they’re like: “That looks like a less stressful job. Maybe I’d want to teach third grade instead.”

What you’re talking about here is a real collision between requirements and the needs of the kids. A lot of people think about staff shortages in terms of the pandemic, but it sounds like staff shortages with special ed have been going on since well before then.

Yeah, I think that’s really important. This is not a pandemic problem.

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This year, 48 out of 50 states reported shortages of special education teachers, which means many schools are forced to rely on a legal loophole: When they can’t find enough trained teachers, they may choose to hire people who aren’t fully qualified, just as long as these candidates actively pursuing a special education certification. That means—in states like California, Virginia, Maryland, and Indiana—schools are offering provisional licenses to people who might not be ready to take on the work of a special ed teacher, just so classrooms don’t sit empty.

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Historically, Indiana has issued emergency permits for special education teachers. That’s something we’re not supposed to do under federal law. This state government came out last year and said, oh, wait a minute, we can’t have these, and so they’re going to stop issuing those permits.

Who can get an emergency permit?

You have to have a college degree and sponsoring school district, essentially. In the best-case scenario what you get is: This teacher’s been teaching general education for a little while, they’re very qualified and experienced, and they’ve agreed to take on the special education load in their school for kids with mild disabilities. So then their principal gets them an emergency permit because their principal wants to hire them. The worst-case scenario—and I have spoken to people who are in this situation—is basically just, you have a college degree, you can teach special education.

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That sounds like it’s not great for the kids or the school.

It varies person by person. Sometimes you talk to a person and they’re a qualified special ed teacher, but they were in a training program to teach students who are deaf and hard of hearing, and then they get an emergency permit and they’re teaching students who are deaf and hard of hearing. Other times you talk to people who are completely in over their head. Even if they’re in a training program, they don’t feel qualified to go into a classroom. The more I learned about this, the more I felt like my takeaway from all this reporting is that we’re often tasking the least-prepared teachers with educating the highest-need students. I don’t think that’s fair to the students, and I don’t think that’s fair to the teachers.

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I wonder if we can talk about some solutions here. I know you went out and looked into places that are experimenting with ways to attract and retain more special education teachers. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s happening in Hawaii?

In Hawaii, they’re paying special education teachers $10,000 extra a year to teach special education on top of what they would get paid to teach general education. They just started doing that in January 2020—and it’s working. When you look at data from 2019, 30 percent of their special education positions statewide were either entirely vacant or staffed by teachers who were not fully licensed. When you look at that same data from the fall of 2021, that percent was cut in half.

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A lot of times, teaching special ed can be thought of as the least desirable job in a school. We know it’s hard. We know it’s staffed by a lot of underqualified people. People don’t think of it as a job that requires specialized expertise. So by saying, We’re going to pay these people more because what they do is really important, and it’s important to have qualified people getting it right, it can change how the job is seen and change how teachers feel about how they’re seen. It’s one thing to work a really hard job and feel like no one is recognizing you and no one sees you doing that. Paying people extra is a way of saying, look, we know this job is really hard and we think it’s really important.

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Where are places like Hawaii getting the cash to pay for this boost in salary?

In Hawaii, it’s about 1 percent of the state education budget. That’s not nothing, but that’s not going to blow up the whole budget. You’re not giving $10,000 more to all of your teachers, which is a much larger pool of people. I spoke to an expert who suggested that school districts should do some cost-benefit analysis because if they did this, they might actually be able to save some money because they’re not going to have to spend as much time recruiting and training special ed teachers, which is really time consuming and expensive.

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Why wouldn’t every school district do this?

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It varies by school system, but when I talk to experts about this, sometimes people say teachers unions are opposed to this. The teachers union in Hawaii has actually been advocating for this, so to say that all teachers unions are opposed to this is just fundamentally inaccurate.

That being said, I’ve seen teachers unions oppose any kind of pay differentiation. So oftentimes, teachers will get paid the same amount based on sort of their experience, regardless of what job they’re doing. It’s a very strong norm in education, which isn’t the case in some other industries—even in other unionized industries.

One teacher in Hawaii alluded to the fact that the extra money’s nice, but what she really needs is to feel like her school and her school system has her back.

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I think that’s a really eloquent way of putting that. You can’t think of this specialized shortage as a problem we can solve quickly with a silver bullet. No one has said, “If you just pay special ed teachers more, we wouldn’t have problems.” Even people who really believe in this also point to other things that we should be doing, like making training for special education teachers easier and lower-cost, and creating schools where special ed teachers and students feel supported and part of their community. You want to create good working conditions, and there are some things we’re dealing with right now that are making working conditions harder at this moment than they’ve been.

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On the flip side, the money does matter to a lot of people. The teacher I talked to in Hawaii, she moved into an administrative role that paid better than a general classroom role because it was year-round. She missed teaching special education, and she missed having her own students instead of helping other people with their students, but she felt like she couldn’t afford to go back into teaching special ed because she needed to pay for child care. And so just like wasn’t an option on the table for her. But when they said we’re going to pay special education teachers $10,000 more a year, she went back to the classroom, and she seemed happy when I saw her.

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If the federal government ponied up and paid for the services they said they were going to, that would help students, but it’s not the only way to help students. States and school districts can make these choices. Atlanta started paying special education teachers $3,000 more a year. Detroit is paying special education teachers $15,000 more a year. Even at the individual school district level, places can decide that this is a priority and they’re going to put their resources behind it.

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