The Crisis in Special Education

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S1: For the last few months, Dylan Piers McCoy has been hearing stories of these parents, people who show up at their local public school only to find out their kid has no teacher. Like this one woman in northwest Indiana.

S2: So the mom went to school on that first day. When you meet, when you were going to meet your kid’s teacher and instead of meeting a teacher, she met a teaching aide. And that teaching aide said they hadn’t been able to fill the teaching position yet.

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S1: These missing teachers work in special education. And this child, she was non-speaking.

S2: And her mom was was worried because she just didn’t know what was going on with her every day at school because her daughter to speak. And anecdotally, we’ve heard from other parents who had similar experiences. In some cases, it might be a kid with a less debilitating disability. You know, maybe your child is dyslexic and they they’re supposed to be receiving services to help with reading. And your kid just doesn’t get those services.

S1: Dylan was curious why these teachers weren’t showing up. She covers education for WFYI in Indianapolis Public Radio Station. She knew special educators often struggle with paperwork, along with the stress of managing kids with complicated needs. It wasn’t until she got a few teachers on the phone, though, that she realized exactly how their burnout was snowballing. Having so many missing colleagues meant the ones who got left behind were fending for themselves.

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S2: So the worst case scenario, I think, for me in doing this reporting was what I heard from a teacher named Emily Abrams.

S1: Emily was a relatively new teacher managing a classroom full of students who struggled to control their behavior.

S2: This was her third year teaching special Ed, and what she told me was she would get hit by students. Often she felt like she wasn’t making a difference. She was just sort of putting out fires.

S1: One day a kid started kicking her and slapping her with a power cord. She and a colleague called for backup.

S2: And they aren’t getting staff back up because the school is dealing with other things. And this lasts for, she thought, 30 or 45 minutes, this conflict with this kid. And she had bruised and swollen shins at the end of the day. And she went home and she felt like her principal and the other administrators in the school didn’t really do anything. And so she went home and she sort of fell apart. And she left teaching almost immediately after that.

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S1: You know, something that stands up to me about that story is that this teacher called for help. But there was no one there. It sounds like the problem is that there just aren’t enough people to do the work in special education classrooms. Is this a problem just for Indiana?

S2: So it’s definitely not a problem just for Indiana. So it’s hard to get good national data on this. But I spoke to a lot of experts and I don’t think I spoke to anyone who told me they didn’t think there was a special and teacher shortage.

S1: Anywhere in the country.

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S2: It’s hard to say everywhere. But I didn’t get anyone who said, go look at this one other state where they figure this out.

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S1: Today on the show, schools around the country are struggling to keep teachers in special education classrooms. Dylan Pierce McCoy went looking for a solution. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What next? Stick around. Special Education was born back in the 1970s. That’s when federal law started requiring public schools to educate kids with disabilities. Since then, schools have been trying to step up to the plate. They’ve hired 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 school to be more inclusive, the federal government promised to pay 40% of the cost of special education. Dylan Pearce McCoy says that is not how things worked out.

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S2: When we look to this up in fiscal year 2020, the Federal Government contributed about 13% of the excess costs of special education, according to data from the National Education Association.

S1: So a fraction.

S2: Yeah, a fraction of what they said. They, what they said we’ll do 40% and they’re doing about 13%. And I am a little bit of a school finance nerd. So I spend a lot of time I spend a lot of time talking to like CFOs and other folks within school districts, just about school budgets. And when you ask them about the pressures on their budgets, the cost of special education comes up over and over again.

S1: 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 onerous government mandated reporting is one more reason it can be hard for even trained professionals to stick around.

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S2: The special ed teacher shortage looks different than some of the other teacher shortages we see. So in STEM, for example, math and science, there’s a real challenge getting people to go into those fields, I think in part because they’re well prepared to do other jobs. Right?

S1: Right. Like they could go work at Google.

S2: Yeah, exactly. So in special education, we actually in many places, in many states, we’re preparing enough special ed teachers. And some states have sort of dual licensure programs. So a lot of general education teachers are licensed in special education. But those teachers are not going into special education classrooms. The sort of prototypical example that I heard from people was maybe someone gets right out of college. They have their license in elementary education and their license in special education, and they just want a job. So the jobs that 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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S1: But then they don’t stay.

S2: Exactly. So you get you get a teacher. They do that job for a while, but then one another position opens up to teach third grade. They’re like, you know what? That looks like a less stressful job. Maybe I’d want to teach third grade and stack.

S1: So just to connect all the dots. What you’re talking about here is a real collision between requirements and needs of the kids stress. I think a lot of people will 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.

S2: Yeah, I think that’s really important. This is not a pandemic problem.

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S1: This year, 48 out of 50 states reported shortages of special education teachers. That means many schools are now 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 as long as they’re actively pursuing their special education certification. So in states like California, Virginia, Maryland and Indiana, that’s where Dillon is. 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.

S2: So historically, Indiana has issued emergency permits for special education teachers. That’s something that we’re not supposed to do under federal law. And this state government came out last last year and said, oh, wait a minute, we can’t have emergency permits for special ed teachers. And so they’re going to stop issuing those permits.

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S1: Who can get an emergency permit? Like if I applied, could I get one as a regular person?

S2: So you have to have a college degree and then you have to have, I believe, a sponsoring school district, essentially. So in the best case scenario, what you get is, oh, this teacher’s been teaching general education for a little while. They’re a very qualified and experienced teacher, and they’ve agreed to take on the special education load in their class, in their school for kids with mild disabilities. And 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, oh, you have a college degree. You can teach special education.

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S1: That sounds like it’s not great for anyone, for the kids, for the school.

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S2: You know, I think sometimes this is working well. It’s just it varies person by person. Sometimes you talk to a person and they’re a qualified special ed teacher, but they’re 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 in their school district, and they feel like they are really prepared to do that. Other times you talk to people who just are completely in over their head. They even if they’re in a training program, they really don’t feel qualified to go into a classroom. For me, the more I learned about this, the more I felt like my take away from all this reporting is that we’re often tasking the least prepared teachers with educating the highest needs students. And I don’t think that’s fair to the students, and I don’t think that’s fair to the teachers.

S1: When we come back, how one state is trying to do things differently. I wonder if we can talk about some solutions here. I know that you went out and looked into this and there are some places that are 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?

S2: Yeah, so Hawaii was really it was really interesting to find I talked to so many people looking for, quote, solutions for just like what are innovative models that places are trying to deal with this problem that we hear is happening everywhere. And then I heard about the what’s going on in Hawaii, which is 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. And they just started doing that in January of 2020. And it’s working basically. You know, when you look at data from 2019, 30% of their special education positions statewide were staffed by teachers who were not fully licensed or were they were vacant entirely. When you look at that same data from the fall of 2021, you get it basically cuts it in half. So it’s down to 15% of their teachers are not fully qualified or those or positions are vacant in special education.

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S1: Yeah, my producer spoke with a teacher in Hawaii and she she basically said before the differential, she felt like she kind of had to choose, like, can I afford to be a special education teacher in Hawaii because I’m making so little living in an expensive place. And by the way, my job is really hard.

S3: I have three children, you know, and there were times where I question that that how am I going to pay this bill this month or how am I going to do this? And it was really hard because I felt like I was having to choose between a profession that I love and I’m so passionate about and my family.

S1: And so the differential really made a difference for her.

S2: Yeah, I think 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 like, really? A job that requires specialized expertise. And 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. You know, 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. And so paying people extra is a way of saying. Look, we know this job is really hard and we think it’s really important.

S1: Where are places like Hawaii getting the cash to pay for this boost in salary? Because we’ve already talked about how it’s hard to get the money for special education, period.

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S2: Yeah. So I think the first thing you have to understand about whether this is affordable is how much it costs in Hawaii. It’s about 1% of the state education budget.

S1: Huh. Pretty small.

S2: Exactly. That’s not nothing. But that’s not going to blow up the whole budget. And the reason why is because you’re just doing it for special ed teachers. You’re not giving $10,000 more to all of your teachers, which is a much larger pool of people. So I spoke to an expert who suggested essentially 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.

S1: Yeah. Why wouldn’t every school district do this?

S2: It essentially boils down to this is hard and and I’m going to explain to you why it’s hard, even if you happen to be able to afford it, which I think varies by school system. But when I talked to experts about this over and over again, sometimes people point to teachers unions. They say that teachers unions are opposed to this. And so that’s why it doesn’t happen.

S1: Why would the teachers unions be opposed to this? It seems like it’s advocating for some of their most stretched union members.

S2: So I think part of it depends on the union and their perspective. The teacher’s union in Hawaii has been advocating for this. So to say that all teachers unions are opposed to this, I think it’s 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. So if you’re teaching A.P. math or you’re teaching special education or you’re teaching third grade and you have five years of experience and you work for school district A, you’re going to be getting paid the same salary base, essentially. And that is. It’s not just that it’s done a lot. It’s also, I would say, a very strong norm in education, which isn’t the case in some other industries, even in some other unionized industries.

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S1: You know, one of the things you said about why the special education teacher shortage is different is that it’s not getting people in the door. That’s a problem. So much is keeping them there. And I think about that a lot when it comes to these pay differentials and paying special ed teachers more, because I think a higher salary could certainly lure more people into the job. But I don’t know if that’s what keeps them there. You know what I mean? Like that. That may mean more support for these teachers. And that’s something that that teacher in Hawaii alluded to, to the fact that the money’s nice. But what she really needs is to feel like her school and her school system has her back.

S3: And I think that’s the missing piece. Right? We can talk about compensation and the shortage differentials, which are great. But at the same time, we we need to address that other piece. There has to be, you know, that support piece, that community piece. And that’s what keeps the teachers in the field. That’s what’s going to retain our our teachers is to make sure that they’re provided, you know, relevant PD and community support.

S2: Yeah, I think that’s a really eloquent way of putting that. For me. You can’t think of this specialized shortage as a problem that we can solve really quickly with a silver bullet. When we talk to experts about this. No one said, but if you just paid special ed teachers more, we wouldn’t have problems. Everything would be fixed and special ed classrooms would be fully staffed and everybody would be happy. Basically 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 special ed students feel supported and part of that community. I mean, the phrase that people use is working conditions, right? Can you. You want to create good working conditions. And there are some things that we’re dealing with right now that I think are making working conditions harder at this moment than they’ve been. But on the flip side, the money does matter to some people. To a lot of people, I think, you know, the teacher I talked to in Hawaii, her name is Heather Karl, she had moved into an administrative role essentially that paid better than a general classroom rule because it was year round and 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 education because she needed to pay for child care. And so just like wasn’t an option on the table for her. So for Heather Karl. When they said, we’re going to pay you 10,000, we’re going to pay special education teachers $10,000 more a year. She was like, Oh my God, this is an opportunity. I can go back to the classroom if I want to now. And she did. And she seemed happy when I saw her. You know, she wanted to be there. And this money really made a difference for her.

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S1: So money is definitely a piece of the puzzle. I think the thing that irks me the most about the problem we’re talking about here is the unfunded mandate. Part of it where the federal government created a requirement that students be served, a requirement that schools keep track of them in a certain way and then just hasn’t really cut a check the way they say they would every year. Is anyone trying to address that?

S2: For me, that’s a big issue. But I think that it’s like there’s a lot of different ways to solve this problem. And to me, the real problem is like students are not getting the education they should be getting. And 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. You know, I’m in Indiana. The state has a lot of money right now in Hawaii. The state has a lot of money right now. And state leaders can choose to invest that money in the highest needs students. And I don’t want to sit around and say, well, if only the federal government did their job, we wouldn’t need to make these tough choices because the federal government isn’t. You know, we’ve been waiting for years for them to fully fund these services, and they aren’t.

S1: And the state could make choices themselves right now.

S2: Absolutely. States and school districts can make these choices. You know, I also spoke to we talk about Hawaii, but I also spoke to Atlanta. Atlanta started paying special education teachers $3,000 more a year. Detroit is paying special education teachers $15,000 more a year. So even at the individual school district level, they can decide that this is a priority and they’re going to put their resources behind it.

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S1: Dylan. Piers McCoy, thank you so much for all your reporting on this topic. I’m really grateful.

S2: Thank you so much for having me. It was it was a pleasure.

S1: Dylan Pierce McCoy is an investigative reporter on WFYI, his education team. She and her colleague Lee Gaines published an excellent series on the nationwide shortage of special ed teachers. Go check it out at WFYI, dawg. Special thanks to Crystal Brogdon. She sat down with us to talk about her experience working as a special ed teacher in Hawaii. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Alina Schwartz and Mary Wilson. We are getting a ton of support right now from Sam Kim and Anna Rubanova. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. Go find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening.