Staffing shortages are a major factor in the struggle to support students with special needs, special education experts told Fox News Digital. 

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), enacted in 1975, guarantees students with disabilities access to fully licensed special educators. Addie Angelov, co-founder and CEO of the Paramount Health Data Project, said that while the "spirit and intent" of the law was commendable, reality has painted a different picture.   

All states except New Hampshire and New Mexico expect shortages in special education teachers for the 2021-2022 school year, according to a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Education. While COVID-19 can account for some staffing setbacks, Angelov said the field of special education suffered from shortages long before the virus.   

"There’s so much paperwork involved," she told Fox News Digital. "There’s so much of an administrative burden." 


US Department of Education building

Washington, DC, USA - January, 12, 2021: US Department of Education Building. (iStock)

She was one of multiple experts who identified the high rate of regulations as a key factor in dissuading people from entering the field. 

"It continues to be one of the most litigious federal laws on the books," said Phyllis Wolfram, who works for the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE), which coordinates and implements special education programs for students under the IDEA. "It also is so highly regulated that the standards and requirements that teachers have to meet from state to state really vary. And it’s up into the hundreds."  

There are some states where they’ve counted the standard requirements for that process of special education is over 1,000, Wolfram told Fox News Digital.

"That equates to 1,000 points of paperwork for teachers that they’re dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s, and it’s hard to teach and do all of the paperwork," she said.

Angelov and Wolfram cited a less-than-enticing salary as another factor keeping individuals from the field.

"We just see fewer and fewer people going into the field," she said. "What we know is, the No. 1 reason is pay. We know that educators take out student loans at the same rate as any other student going to college. However, based on the salary of teachers, debt load is considerably higher for our educators."     

"We’re not seeing a lot of light at the end of the tunnel where that is concerned," she added.  

Stacey Glasgow, a speech-language pathologist who works for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, called for "appropriate and competitive salaries in schools, loan forgiveness and personnel preparation grants to entice new students into the professions and educate more faculty to teach those future professionals."  

University students in class.

Cropped shot of university students sitting in class (istock)

The experts further pointed to the federal funding gap as a hindrance to quality special education. Under IDEA, the federal government pledged to fund special education services at 40%, yet schools were held accountable at 100%. In recent years, however, the funding level has hovered around 15% of the average per-pupil expense, according to the Congressional Research Service.

"So sometimes resources are limited," Wolfram said after noting the gap. 

Angelov said special education is also often bogged down by litigation.

"It’s also the reality that this is one of the places where schools get sued," she said.

Parental disputes over what kinds of services children with special needs qualify for have been especially prevalent in the nation's capital. A 2020 report by the Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education found those disputes are far more common in Washington, D.C., than anywhere else in the country, with parties collectively filing formal dispute resolution measures at a rate of 279 times per 10,000 kids, as of the 2018-2019 school year, NBC4 Washington reported.  

Chesterfield school bus

A bus for Chesterfield County Public Schools crashed Thursday, injuring five children and two adults, according to local reports.  (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

Other experts, however, say litigation is not as big an obstacle as some may believe.

"Never, in all of my time interviewing teachers about attrition/retention, have they ever even once brought up litigation," Elizabeth Bettini, an associate professor in the Special Education program at Boston University's Wheelock College of Education & Human Development said.

Likewise, she also questioned how big a role paperwork has in discouraging people from pursuing a career in special education. The biggest obstacle, she offered, is the heavy workload that comes with the territory.

"I think the biggest factor, in all the research we’ve done, is that folks are really overloaded. With the job they’re assigned to do, is too big for one person." 

Bettini mentioned a national survey from the Council for Exception Children of special educators who work in self-contained classrooms for students with emotional behavioral disorders and found that, on average, they were spending about ten hours outside of school time was spent planning because they did not have time during the school day. The educators additionally reported "very poor access" to curricular resources and were "instead having to search for or create materials and spending a lot of time on finding curricular resources that other teachers are just provided automatically." 

Administrative support, she concluded, is crucial to the success of special educators.

Glasgow also cited difficult working conditions as a factor that has proved to "impact the pipeline of professionals."

Addie Angelov

Addie Angelov, co-founder and CEO of the Paramount Health Data Project (Fox News Digital)


Moving forward, Glasgow said there needs to be a push for positive school climates, coaching and mentoring, and tools for appropriate professional development. And, last but not least, manageable workloads. 

"We need to do some recruitment,"Angelov added. "We need to make sure that they’re getting paid."  

Because in the end, the experts said, it's about the students.  

"We see lower achievement, we see higher rates of student maltreatment, we see higher rates of litigation," Angelov said. "If you have a teacher who is just a warm body in the classroom to say we have someone, that is going to be a very different experience for a student who has a highly qualified teacher who’s been trained in how to meet their needs."