As Teacher Vacancies Mount, Special Education Teachers Struggle to Meet Student Needs
By Gabriella Ybarra
Elisabeth Meyer is out the door at 5:30 a.m. to catch the bus before any of her children leave for school each day. Meyer, who is legally blind and is a parent of five children with special needs, raised her kids to be independent. She is on her way to her job to teach other kids with special needs.
“I am a product of the public education system,” Meyer said. “I remember my parents fighting for my rights and having to fight all the time for me to receive a good education.”
Meyer works as a special education teacher at an elementary school in East Austin, where she says ongoing teacher shortages in special education are straining existing teachers to the point of exhaustion and preventing them from meeting student needs.
“It’s been really hard. There have been teachers that I never thought would ever quit that have looked at me at the end of the day in exasperation and have been like I don’t know if I can do this again next year,” Meyer said.
Nearly all states in the U.S. are dealing with teacher shortages in special education. Texas school districts have struggled to fill teacher vacancies for years. The situation worsened during the pandemic.
Areas such as special education and bilingual education are among the hardest to fill. As of May 6, the Austin Independent School District had 496 teacher vacancies — 107 are in special education, most at Title I schools like Meyer’s. In Title I schools, at least 40% of students are from low-income families, entitling the schools to additional federal funding.
Texas public schools and charter schools provide special education services to over 600,000 students, according to 2020-21 data from the Texas Education Agency.
In March, Gov. Greg Abbott directed TEA to create a task force to address ongoing teacher shortages, including recommending policy changes and exploring other ways of approaching the teacher certification process.
However, the task force quickly drew criticism after its announcement for having only two teachers among its members. The agency then announced it would expand to 24 teachers, but It’s unclear whether special education teachers will be included.
Glenna Billingsley, an education professor at Texas State University, said unless districts come up with creative solutions to recruit teachers, she isn’t confident the state will meet demand.
“We’re going to need more teachers, and yet we are in a place where people are leaving in droves,” Billingsley said.
Research shows that special-education teachers are more vulnerable to burnout than other teachers. That burnout can be linked to physical and psychological health and work performance.
Along with needing additional teaching certifications, special education teachers work with students who require more care than students in general education and must act as “case managers” for each student.
This means being part of admission, review and dismissal committees, which determine a student’s eligibility for special education services, and in the development of students’ individualized education plans, or IEPs, which outline how the school will meet a student’s needs and goals.
“Special education is difficult and challenging due to the needs of the students, but also the federal guidelines and paperwork required for ARD committee meetings kind of puts an extra duty and responsibility on teachers,” said Norma Castillo, director of talent acquisition for the Austin school district and a former special-education teacher.
The number of teacher vacancies in special education is higher this year than last year in the Austin district but has remained around 30% for some time, Castillo said.
A vacancy doesn’t always mean there’s no teacher in the classroom, Castillo said. Existing teachers or other certified personnel can step in to fill in those gaps. She said many principals have had to get creative with meeting student needs by employing student-teachers or teaching assistants.
But these people aren’t always certified or aren’t listed as the teacher of record, Castillo said. This means they are unable to attend ARD meetings or do any of the associated legal paperwork.
Donna Batts, parent of a 13-year-old daughter with autism in Austin ISD’s homebound program, said her daughter had to miss the first three weeks of school because her school did not have enough teachers to have an ARD meeting before the start of this school year.
“She couldn’t technically be homebound until she had the ARD,” Batts said. “So, for the first three weeks there was no class. She didn’t go, period, because they weren’t doing zoom at all.”
The vacancies are placing stress on existing teachers, Meyer said. She said her school lost several teaching assistants this year, leaving teachers with little support.
“(Teachers) don’t have the support they need. Teachers are having to work through their planning time and their lunchtime and they don’t have the behavior support they need in their classroom,” Meyer said.
Without proper support, teachers risk not meeting the service time listed in student IEPs, which can detail how many minutes a student will spend doing a specific activity with a special-ed teacher. Because an IEP is a legal document, students must receive those minutes or else a school can be held accountable, Billingsley said.
“If it says they get those minutes, they get those minutes. They get those minutes with a certified special education teacher, not a paraprofessional, but that’s who’s having to deliver those minutes right now,” she added.
Meyer said she knows many students at her school are not having service minutes met.
“It creates this emotional dissonance because it’s very anxiety-provoking to know that I’m supposed to be covering all of these services, but I don’t have the staff or the supplies or the space to do it. So, therefore, I’m out of compliance, and it’s not really my fault,” Meyer said.
In a statement, the Austin school district told Reporting Texas said special-education teachers should raise concerns about unmet student needs to students’ case managers and to campus administrators.
Campus administrators collaborate with the district’s special-education department to “determine if additional staff are needed or to review how existing staff is assigned to best provide services to students,” the district said.
In 2016, a Houston Chronicle investigation found that the TEA set an illegal 8.5% cap on the number of students receiving special-education services, forcing some students into alternative programs which are generally cheaper to run. The cap was in place for more than a decade and saved the agency billions of dollars.
A U.S. Department of Education investigation found in 2018 that Texas had violated federal law by failing to ensure students with disabilities were identified and evaluated. The department asked TEA to make several corrective steps, but in 2021 it found that TEA failed to implement the majority of those actions.
After the 8.5% cap was eliminated, state officials estimated that it would cost the state up to $3.3 billion to provide special education to more than 150,000 additional students by 2021. This meant the state would need to hire an additional 9,000 teachers.
During the 2015-16 school year, nearly 48,000 teachers taught at least one special education course, according to data from TEA provided to Reporting Texas under the Texas Public Information Act. In 2021-22, that number increased to 54,000.
The Austin school district is offering $2,000 stipends and an additional $500 a year to people interested in working in special education.
Castillo said the district is also asking teachers certified in special education but not teaching special education classes if they would like to switch positions. And it is asking retired teachers whether they would come back, proposing that the district could incur any retirement fees.
Stipends may help, but it’s still not enough, Meyer said. While the starting pay for special education teachers in AISD is $51,000 a year, Meyer said teachers don’t teach for the money.
“I’m not saying that it wouldn’t help, but there are so many issues in education right now that I don’t think another two or $3,000 a year would keep people,” Meyer said. “It would have to be (an additional) $15,000 a year, it would have to be significant for people to stay because of the money.”
In 2019, Texas State University and 10 other colleges partnered with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education to come up with strategies to reduce the shortage of special education teachers. Billingsley and Cathy Newman Thomas represent Texas State for the project. The initiative hopes to implement its strategies by fall 2022.
“We have used improvement science to put our collective heads together and imagine solutions to addressing the shortage issue,” Billingsley said. “Each of the partners developed their own drivers for what we wanted to accomplish and possible solutions.”
For the project, Texas State has focused on recruiting military veterans, creating a pipeline for paraprofessionals to receive full certifications and introducing special education to career and technology classes in high schools.
“We want to introduce (special education) to those who may want to teach to the full spectrum of special education. We have partnered with local districts to talk to students and bring them to Texas State for tours earlier than just juniors and seniors,” Billingsley said.
While she has looked at other jobs, Meyer said she’s not going anywhere yet. She pointed to the relationships she has developed and knows her school requires more support than others due to the unique challenges that kids in Title I schools face.
“I do know that my kids need me,” Meyer said. “My parents aren’t in an economic situation to really advocate for their kids, and so I know that they do need me. They need my skill set in my school.”