guest column:

Teacher-shortage crisis hurts students with disabilities most

The teacher-shortage crisis in Nevada has reached a disturbing level, especially in the Clark County School District, with 961 reported teacher vacancies as of April 1. As summer approaches, state education and political leaders must consider real solutions to address this urgent problem.

A lesser-known fact, but perhaps even more startling, is the number of special education teacher vacancies. Thirty-eight percent of teacher vacancies in the Clark County School District’s elementary and middle schools are special education vacancies, and many of these are for autism specialists. Additionally, 83 percent of special education teacher vacancies are in Title I schools, which serve our community’s most under-resourced families. Special education teacher vacancies are also high in schools tailored to meet the needs of students with severe disabilities. This crisis in the supply of special education instructors is not limited to the Clark County School District. The Washoe County School District has more than 240 job openings, more than 40 percent of which are for special education instructors.

Long-term substitutes are having to fill in as special education teachers. While they can write an individualized education plan (IEP) for a student receiving special education services, they do not have the appropriate training to understand the needs of these students. Reports suggest that in many instances, IEPs are not being enforced or followed. Long-term substitutes are not required to attend professional development opportunities offered by the district, which could provide some training to help them meet students’ diverse needs.

Consequently, valuable resources are being used to triage the lack of training. The Clark County School District has senior-level special education experts such as area directors, instructional coordinators and behavior interventionist project facilitators who are available to help school staff address the needs of students receiving special education services. In Clark County, these experts train Special Education Instructional Facilitators (SEIFs) at the school site to help special education teachers and provide them with guidance and support. Unfortunately, due to long-term substitutes’ lack of training, SEIFs spend a majority of their time writing individualized education plans to ensure legal compliance rather than providing support to special education teachers. The lack of qualified classroom instructors threatens the federal and state requirements to provide a free and appropriate public education for our most vulnerable population, particularly those who are under-resourced.

A number of factors contribute to the disproportionately high number of special education teacher vacancies. The burnout rate among special education teachers is high; half will leave their jobs within five years. Paperwork and reporting requirements, and lack of school and parent support are among the reasons teachers leave. While special education teachers may be paid more than other teachers, the pay differential does not sufficiently compensate for the additional hours needed to complete the required paperwork. Additionally, only a small handful of our state’s graduate education programs are producing instructors with a special education background. At UNLV, only 15 percent of those graduating from the traditional teacher education program had a degree in special education. At UNR, less than one-third of its education graduates have special education training.

Fortunately, there are a number of existing options that our school district leaders can leverage to help increase the number of special education teachers in Nevada and provide them with support. In 2015, the Legislature passed a performance pay bill (Assembly Bill 483), that requires school districts to set aside funds to provide incentives to teachers. The Lyon County School District is using its performance pay funds to recruit and retain special education teachers by providing a $3,000 salary bump. Districts can access the New Teacher Incentive Fund (SB 511) to direct resources to Title I schools with dire need to recruit and retain special education teachers. Additionally, eligible districts can tap into a portion of Zoom School (SB 504) and Victory School (SB 432) funds to provide incentives to teachers, including special education teachers, at these qualifying schools.

Research indicates that financial compensation alone may not be sufficient to retain our state’s special education teachers. Effective professional development and greater support can help retain special education teachers. Districts can access the Great Teaching and Leading Fund (SB 474) to provide effective professional development opportunities for special education teachers.

Notwithstanding the availability of resources, addressing the broken pipeline of special education teachers will require focused attention and greater collaboration among our school districts and institutions of higher education. Our universities should prioritize scholarships for students who seek special education degrees. Our state’s governing boards and the Legislature should require districts to design and present an integrated plan showing how they plan to access existing funds to recruit and retain special education teachers. Our leaders must make this collaboration a priority. Our students receiving special education services deserve nothing less.

Nancy Brune is executive director of the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities. Megan Rauch is associate director of research of the Guinn Center. Leslie Strasser Murdock is the owner and CEO of ELM Educational Consulting LLC.

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