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Shortage of fully licensed special education teachers in 48 states

On Behalf of | Jun 27, 2022 | Education Law

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, kids with disabilities have the right to access a fully licensed special educator. This school year, however, there is a shortage of licensed special education teachers in 48 states, including California.

That typically means one of three things. Option one: big classes. Option two: classes taught by people who are currently working toward full licensure. Or, option three: kids without special education teachers at all.

In California, we’re seeing a lot of option two. Our law allows student teachers who are actively pursuing their special education certification to get provisional licenses and spend part of their learning time leading classes. Some special education experts worry, however, that provisional licensees are a risk. Without full training and mentoring, these student teachers may not have the skills and experience to handle the job on their own. That could put our most vulnerable learners at risk.

Is a provisional license enough for a special education teacher?

“This to me is like telling somebody there’s a dearth of doctors in neurosurgery, so we would love for you to transition into the field by giving you the opportunity to operate on people while you’re taking coursework at night,” said a spokesperson for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

She admits that’s provocative, but special education teachers really need to be fully competent. Full competence takes training, practice and evaluation.

Yet there may be little choice but to hope that provisional licensees are good enough. NPR recently highlighted an Indiana school district’s program of bringing in provisional licensees on a pipeline to fill their need for teachers. The program pays the student teacher’s tuition and provides a mentor in exchange for the student teacher to agree to work for the district for five years.

This pipeline has produced around 30 fully licensed special educators for the district over the last four years – but the district still has 24 vacancies for special ed teachers. Even though it’s a full-ride scholarship, there simply isn’t enough interest in the program.

Turnover rates are high, and that affects kids

According to NPR, low pay, heavy workloads and challenging working conditions all lead to high turnover among special educators, especially in the most demanding settings. These structural issues seem intractable, and they are the reason behind the overall shortage. Turnover rates are even higher among provisional licensees, according to research from the Learning Policy Institute.

When teachers leave, they take an enormous amount of information with them. It’s harder to maintain an individualized education plan when a series of new teachers come along and have to learn the background, concerns and goals of each student.

Lack of experience could also be one reason Black students with disabilities are suspended at much higher rates than their peers. Student teachers may not have the tools yet to handle the challenges.

To solve the shortage of special educators, our society may have to work to increase salaries and improve working conditions, along with improving recruitment, preparation and job supports. Otherwise, we will continue to train special educators on the job.

Leigh Law Group represents families in education matters across California.