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Special Education Opinion

Market Forces and Special Education

By Jay McIntire — June 13, 2001 7 min read
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One of the most intractable challenges in special education is the shortage of licensed special education teachers who choose to practice their profession.

One of the most intractable challenges in special education is the shortage of licensed special education teachers who choose to practice their profession. The latest data from the U.S. Department of Education show that in 1996-97, more than 10 percent of special education teaching positions for children and youths between the ages of 3 and 21 were either vacant or filled by teachers not fully certified. The department administered during that period more than $83 million in grants to help states provide and subsidize training programs aimed at ensuring an adequate supply of special education personnel.

Funds from state, local, and private sources are used as well to coax citizens into training for careers in special education—and staying in those careers once they have started. Such efforts are yielding marginal improvements in certain specializations within the field, but they have not and will not solve the problem. In fact, if one balances the number of new special educators against the numbers retiring or leaving the field, the shortages are growing.

If one balances the number of new special educators against the numbers retiring or leaving the field, the shortages are growing.

Assuming that licensure is based on competencies important to good teaching, children with disabilities taught by someone who does not meet minimal state licensure standards are not, by definition, receiving an education commensurate with that of their peers who have such trained teachers. We must accept the necessity of such inequities in the short term. But we cannot, under the equal- protection clause of the 14th Amendment, knowingly allow the continuance of a system that shows no hope for resolving the shortages that result in some children with disabilities receiving a substandard education. To do so would be to knowingly deny students with disabilities equal protection under the law. If we can solve the special education teacher shortage, we must.

The only way to ensure an adequate supply of qualified and licensed teachers is to allow special educators to bargain collectively as a group distinct from other teachers. Either a special educators’ union or separate negotiations for special educators by existing teachers’ unions would result in teaching conditions, supports, and compensation packages that would make special education a profession of equal (or at least comparable) desirability to that of teaching in “regular education.” By separating the contract negotiations of special educators from regular educators’, market forces would create a demand that would compel supply. Moreover, unions negotiating in support of special educators would create market conditions that would attract special educators to the inner-city, rural, and impoverished communities that have the greatest needs and the fewest licensed professional special educators.

The Council for Exceptional Children, in its 2000 report “Bright Futures for Exceptional Learners,” cites eight pressing issues that present workplace challenges for special educators:

  • Ambiguous and competing responsibilities;
  • Overwhelming paperwork;
  • Inadequate district and administrative support;
  • Significant teacher isolation;
  • Insufficient focus on improved student outcomes;
  • Increased demand for well-qualified special educators;
  • Poorly prepared new general and special educators; and
  • Fragmented state licensing systems.

Some of these are common to all teachers (for example, fragmented licensing systems), but most are unique to special education, or are considerably more problematic for special educators. Some of the the field’s added tasks and special circumstances, such as the supervision of paraprofessionals and the legal implications of mistakes, might lead noneducators to classify special education jobs as having higher levels of responsibility. And certainly, the market forces that lead to cyclical availability of other teachers and consistent shortages in special education are consistent with that interpretation. In fact, the practice of teaching special education is so different from teaching regular education that the fields should be treated distinctly in contract negotiations.

The only way to ensure an adequate supply of qualified and licensed teachers is to allow special educators to bargain collectively as a group distinct from other teachers.

If teachers of children with disabilities were recognized as providing a unique service and bargained collectively as the professionals trained to provide a free and appropriate public education to such students, special education’s teacher shortage, the troubling working conditions that drive special educators from the field, and the challenge of schools and families to maintain high-quality educational opportunities for students with disabilities would soon see major and lasting improvements.

There is only one danger in collective bargaining for special educators: that general educators would perceive such a change as diminishing their own responsibilities to students with disabilities, such as teaching the regular curriculum, providing in-class interventions and accommodations, and participating in planning for students with disabilities. But this danger should be lessened by the fact that federal law, supported by most state law, requires these efforts, and the general educators’ code of ethics should demand compliance.


If special education were recognized as the distinct specialty that it is, market forces would soon create incentives for completing licensure requirements, teaching special education, and staying in the field. What would these incentives be? It’s impossible to say, but given the challenges that emerged from the Council for Exceptional Children’s study, one might expect that diminished paperwork or the addition of staff members to minimize the paperwork burden might be negotiated. Systemic changes to recognize improved student outcomes outside the realm of standardized testing might also be negotiated. And the additional hours spent scheduling, preparing for, and holding essential meetings with parents, as well as consulting with general educators and related service-staff members, might be adjusted. Special educators working with particularly challenging students, such as young people with serious emotional disturbances or medically fragile students, also might expect additional contractually based adjustments. In some places, increased salaries might be needed as incentives.

Unions negotiating in support of special educators would create market conditions that would attract special educators to areas that have the greatest needs and the fewest licensed professional special educators.

Contract negotiations already provide challenges for teachers, administrators, school boards, and unions, but market- based changes in our system would result in improved outcomes for special education students and would ease some other challenges. Better working conditions for special educators would result in less staff turnover, less flight from special education to general education, and incentives for increased numbers of teachers to complete special education training. Most importantly, a market-based approach would allow students with disabilities an equal opportunity to be served by teachers who are fully trained to meet their needs and protect their rights.

The federal office of special education programs, state educational leaders, teachers’ unions, special educators, and children’s advocates would all see progress on their priorities if schools could demonstrate their good-faith efforts to recruit and hire appropriately and adequately trained personnel, by competing for special educators through the process of negotiating working conditions and salaries. The resulting differences in conditions and compensation would, in the long term, lead to an increased supply of qualified special educators.

In the short term, differences in conditions and compensation could offset the advantages that wealthy and suburban schools have in recruiting teachers. Since communities with higher proportions of nonwhite students and higher rates of poverty have the greatest trouble recruiting qualified teachers, the resulting competition might also help the field address another intractable problem, the overrepresentation of poor and minority students in special education.

But that’s another story.


Jay McIntire is an educational consultant living in Circle Pines, Minn., and the president-elect of the Minnesota Council for Exceptional Children.

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as Market Forces and Special Education

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