Opinion: Special education teachers should be in Abbott's TEA task force

·3 min read

It’s no secret to many Texas parents that there is a teacher shortage in the state. That’s why Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Education Agency to create a task force to address the shortage. The TEA will add 24 teachers to the panel by its next meeting in May. But it is unclear whether any special education teachers will be on the task force. The state is overlooking the unique recruitment and retention issues related to special education teachers, issues that have often been deprioritized in past reforms.

Texas has reported a special education teacher shortage since 2001. Researchers consistently find that special education teachers experience higher levels of burnout and turnover relative to their peers. Burnout and turnover are often associated with large caseloads of students receiving special education, limited resources, poor administrative support, and significant amounts of paperwork.

In this Aug. 15, 2021 file photo, special education teacher Michele Hunter walks a student to his classroom at Caldwell Elementary School in the Pflugerville school district.
In this Aug. 15, 2021 file photo, special education teacher Michele Hunter walks a student to his classroom at Caldwell Elementary School in the Pflugerville school district.

Being a special education teacher in Texas is also made more difficult by the state’s lack of accountability and financial investments. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education concluded that the TEA “failed to ensure all children with disabilities residing in the State who are in need of special education … were identified, located, and evaluated… as required by IDEA.” More than two years later, the state met only one of four required corrective actions.

In an unrelated matter from 2019, the state was found to owe $223 million to the federal government for illegally decreasing special education funding.

The pandemic has also added new job-related challenges for special education teachers. A shortage of general education teachers has prompted some schools to inappropriately assign special education teachers to cover classes for absent teachers. Many times, this occurs during planning or instructional time for the special ed teacher. Such practices are demoralizing. Moreover, virtual schooling during the pandemic resulted in missed important special education services that can be made up only after school by certified special education teachers. This increases the special education teacher workload.

The state can take several very actions to help recruit and retain special education teachers. First, the TEA must ensure that special education teachers are part of the task force and have a powerful voice.

The TEA also noted the task force will be broken up into several work groups to address different challenges. One of the workgroups should study and provide recommendations specific to special education teachers.

Policymakers should consider making a significant increase in special education teacher pay, given their heavier workloads and added responsibilities. Special education teachers get paid the same amount as other teachers, yet they handle cumbersome paperwork and legal requirements under the nation’s federal special education law. They often receive less access to coaching, mentoring and professional development opportunities offered within schools relative to their peers.

Increasing their salary and providing more professional development can make the job more attractive, decrease turnover rates, and recognize their important contributions. The state should avoid small salary incentives that are rarely found to be a factor in retaining teachers.

The shortage of special education teachers in Texas limits the state’s ability to provide high-quality instruction, counseling, therapy, screening and behavioral support to many of the state’s students. Almost every state is struggling to fill special education teacher vacancies, so a significant investment is now necessary.

The state has failed to develop appropriate policies and adequately fund special education for decades. These historical failures coupled with the increased rates of turnover stemming from the pandemic necessitate immediate and significant long-term investments. The state can take a small step by adding special education teachers to the TEA task force.

DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas.

Madrigal III is a graduate student studying education policy at the university.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Opinion: Special education teachers should be in the TEA task force