Special Education

States Are Desperate for Special Ed. Teachers. But They Can’t Cut Corners to Get Them

By Madeline Will — October 25, 2022 8 min read
Special education teacher assisting a diverse group of elementary students in art class.
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In the face of teacher shortages, many states have lowered licensing standards to get teachers in classrooms as quickly as possible. But here’s a Catch-22: they can’t do that with special education teachers.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law on educating students with disabilities, requires that special education teachers be “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained” and “have the content knowledge and skills to serve children with disabilities.”

The U.S. Department of Education has taken note that some states and districts may be skirting the law. On Oct. 4, Valerie Williams, the director in the office of special education programs at the education department, warned state directors of special education that those requirements haven’t changed—despite the challenges many states are facing in recruiting enough special educators to fill vacancies.

“Based on media reports and discussions with states and advocates, OSEP is aware that some states currently have policies and procedures in place that may not be consistent with IDEA requirements,” Williams wrote. “OSEP also recognizes that states are facing many challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the impact it has had on exacerbating the shortage of special education teachers and related services providers across the country.”

Federal law says that special education teachers must have obtained full state certification in that field and passed the state licensing test for special education teachers. Districts can hire teachers pursuing certification through an alternate route that puts them in the classroom before being fully licensed, but they must receive mentorship and high-quality professional development. And they cannot act as a teacher for more than three years before earning certification.

States cannot waive special education certification or licensure requirements on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis, the memo emphasized. Special education teachers must also hold at least a bachelor’s degree.

“Our students with disabilities have such large gaps already with their outcomes,” said Meg Kamman, the co-director of the federally funded CEEDAR Center, which works to strengthen teacher preparation in the special education field. “We really want to make sure that our teachers have the knowledge and skills to be able to help students.”

Special education teachers who are fully prepared are more likely to stay in the classroom for longer and are more likely to improve their students’ academic outcomes, Kamman said. The CEEDAR (Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform) Center has encouraged districts to partner with universities so they can work together to find solutions to vacancies, including pipelines for paraprofessionals to become special education teachers.

One state works to follow the law after years of violations

Indiana is forging a new path away from emergency teaching credentials for special education.

In April, the Indiana State Board of Education voted to end the use of emergency permits for special education teachers. The state had been violating IDEA for years—an investigation from WFYI in Indianapolis found that Indiana had issued more than 1,200 special education emergency teaching permits in 2019-20, up from about 850 in 2016-17.

Most of the emergency permits were for mild intervention, but about 150 emergency permits each year were issued for intense intervention, WFYI found. Teachers who are licensed for intense intervention are able to teach students with moderate to profound cognitive impairment, autism, multiple disabilities, traumatic brain injury, and orthopedic or other impairments.

While the Education Department didn’t sanction the state, the use of the emergency permits left school districts vulnerable to potential legal challenges from parents. Yet district leaders worry that without these licenses, they’ll struggle to staff their special education classrooms and have to increase the case loads for certified teachers, WFYI has reported.

“Schools of education were not producing special education teachers at the rate that districts were demanding them,” said Carey Dahncke, the executive director of the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis.

Last fall, the center partnered with the state education department to launch a new program, called Indiana Special Education Assisted Licensure, to make it easier for educators already working in schools to become certified special education teachers. Sixteen teacher-preparation programs across the state are providing the required coursework and support for taking the Praxis test at the end, free of charge.

The candidates, most of whom already have a bachelor’s degree, fall into two main categories—paraprofessionals or emergency certified teachers who need a teaching license, and teachers of other subjects who need to add a special education endorsement to their existing license. (I-SEAL also offers testing workshops for candidates who have already completed the coursework but have had a hard time passing the licensing exams.)

Some principals have encouraged some of their teachers to go through the program because they have urgent vacancies in their classrooms for children with disabilities. They might feel like, “I don’t have to have an art teacher—I have to have a special education teacher,” Dahncke said.

It will take about two years for most candidates to go through the program. They take classes online while still working in schools and earning a paycheck. Their tuition and other associated costs, including textbooks, are covered by the state, and in return, they must teach special education in an Indiana public school for at least two years upon completion of the program.

In about a year, the program has enrolled about 600 candidates who are on track to become fully certified special education teachers in the state.

However, the program has been funded in part through federal pandemic relief money, and Dahncke said he’s not sure whether it can maintain such a high volume of candidates when that money runs out.

But given the success so far and the urgent need for certified special education teachers, the state “would not sunset the project,” Dahncke said. In fact, the center is exploring a similar program for teachers of English learners.

Finding certified special education teachers is source of ‘anxiety’ for district leaders

Oklahoma, a state that relies heavily on emergency certifications to fill classroom vacancies, does not grant them for special education teachers in accordance with federal law. That leaves districts scrambling to fill the gaps with the certified teachers they do have.

“Over the past nine years, the hiring of special education teachers has been one of the biggest concerns for educational leaders of Oklahoma, but this year, it probably grew to a new height of anxiety for school leaders as they tried to start the school year,” said Shawn Hime, the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, which has surveyed district leaders in the state for almost a decade.

To address the problem long-term, districts are helping their paraprofessionals earn their special education teaching licenses. But in the short-term, some districts have to rely on substitute teachers to cover vacancies when they’re in between special education teachers, he said. (In Oklahoma, substitute teachers have to complete in-service training if they’re teaching a special education assignment for more than 15 consecutive or 30 total days during a school year.)

“It’s definitely the worst-case scenario,” Hime said.

Districts are also using financial incentives. In Oklahoma, special education teachers receive 5 percent more in their salary than other teachers with similar education and experience levels, but Hime said that hasn’t been enough to make a real difference in the shortages. Some school districts have increased the salary differential for special education teachers to 7.5 or 10 percent, he said, or have offered signing or retention bonuses that are typically between $3,000 and $5,000.

The Union public school district in Tulsa is offering both a 10 percent salary differential for special education teachers, as well as a $2,000 signing bonus.

“These are things in my 37 years [in education] that we’ve never had to consider in order to try to entice teachers to move into special education or move [to the district],” said Superintendent Kirt Hartzler.

The district has also consolidated some of its special education programming to maximize the reach of staff. But Hartzler said the situation feels like a “tsunami"—the state is not producing enough new teachers to meet current vacancies, retirements are high due to an aging teacher workforce, and he worries the number of students needing special education services will continue to grow following the pandemic.

He hopes that Oklahoma lawmakers will make significant investments in teacher pay and per-pupil funding, which he said would allow the district to hire more paraprofessionals and provide more support for special educators.

“It’s not even sometimes just the pay [that’s a barrier]—the work is tough, we know that,” Hartzler said. “Providing the additional resources in the way of hands and teachers in place would make their workdays much easier. If they’re not so exhausted every day and year, they’re more likely to stay in special education year after year.”

He added: “I’d love to have highly qualified teachers for all of our programs and students, but special education is one of those really important programs that we absolutely must do whatever we can do have the most highly qualified and trained teachers in front of those kids—they deserve it.”

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