Marie Eriel Hobro for NPR
This is part two of a two-part series on the special education teacher shortage. You can read part one here.
A few years after Heather Carll started teaching special education in Hawaii public schools, she called it quits. She needed a break from the meetings, paperwork and legal responsibilities that make teaching students with disabilities one of the toughest jobs in education.
“I felt like, ‘Let me get away from [Individualized Education Programs] and see what it’s like to teach without that responsibility, without that extra added stress to my job,’ ” she says.
Carll took a position teaching general education and eventually found a district job with better pay.
She says it wasn’t the same. “What I really missed was working with kids.”
But she could no longer afford the pay cut that came with being in the classroom.
That changed in 2020, when Hawaii started paying special education teachers $10,000 more per year.
“I literally could not afford to go back to the classroom without the differential,” Carll says.
For years, Hawaii has struggled to recruit and retain special education teachers like Carll. And it’s not alone: This school year, 48 states, including Hawaii, reported shortages of special education teachers to the federal government.
The shortage is so severe that Hawaii is one of several states that rely on teachers without licenses in special education to teach some of the highest needs students — like those who do not speak and those with challenging behaviors.
But Hawaii’s pay increase, which began in 2020, was a game changer. Before the incentive, in October 2019, almost 30% of the state’s special education positions were vacant or staffed by teachers without appropriate licenses, district data shows. By October 2021, that number dropped by half, to about 15%.
“I think what we’ve seen in Hawaii is that it works,” says Osa Tui, the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. “It’s definitely having a great impact on getting people to remain in special education, and also it’s attracting folks to go into special education.”
Other districts are trying this, but large incentives are rare
Hawaii isn’t the only school system paying special education teachers more. Detroit began paying $15,000 more this school year, and district leaders say it is already helping. Smaller pay stipends are also common in large districts.
But significant incentives like those in Hawaii and Detroit haven’t caught on more broadly.
“It is frustrating to watch districts say they have this challenge and then don’t take many actions to address it,” says Chad Aldeman, who studies school finance at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.
Marie Eriel Hobro for NPR
Students with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate education under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The federal government is supposed to cover 40% of the extra cost of providing special education services, but it has never fulfilled that promise. In fiscal year 2020, the federal government only contributed about 13%, according to the National Education Association.
Paying special education teachers more would increase the cost of providing services that are already expensive.
But Aldeman believes it would have a relatively limited impact on district budgets, because those educators only make up a small portion of a district’s staff. He says most school systems could afford to boost pay. And that could lead to other savings.
“If districts start thinking about the amount of money it would cost to recruit and replace the teacher who leaves, then it might start to change the calculation,” Aldeman explains. “It can make sense financially.”
Atlanta Public Schools is hoping Aldeman is right.
In June 2019, the district was scrambling to fill 30 special education teacher vacancies for the next school year. Nicole Lawson, interim chief human resources officer, says they were offering candidates jobs only to lose out to neighboring districts that paid more.
Then Atlanta started paying new special education teachers $3,000 bonuses, and within a month, all the vacancies were full, Lawson says. This school year, Atlanta started offering those incentives to all special education teachers as part of a pilot program.
“I have a good feeling — just with my ear to the ground — that we will lessen our burden of recruitment over the years by offering retention stipends,” Lawson says. “I think we’ll boost our retention for our special education teachers.”
What the pay bump is costing Hawaii
The pay differentials for licensed special education teachers are expected to cost Hawaii about $20 million this school year — close to 1% of the state’s roughly $2 billion education budget.
“In my view, this is an essential cost for the children here who deserve to have teachers who are highly qualified, licensed and skilled in this profession,” says Catherine Payne, chair of the Hawaii State Board of Education.
Hawaii is in a unique position because it has a single district and teacher pay is set statewide. But the differentials were almost derailed when the pandemic forced Hawaii’s tourism-based economy to a halt just weeks after the extra pay kicked in.
Marie Eriel Hobro for NPR
“We were afraid that we would go broke as a state,” Payne says. “They were talking about 20% pay cuts for everybody. And it was very frightening.”
Proposed cuts to the differentials faced intense resistance from teachers, parents and school board members. Ultimately the board voted to keep the extra special education pay in place.
For now, the department is using an influx of federal COVID-19 relief funding to pay for the differentials. But with tourism picking up again, lawmakers are considering legislation to provide dedicated funding for the pay boost.
Most schools pay teachers the same salaries, regardless of their specialty
The price tag isn’t the only obstacle to paying special education teachers more. Most school systems pay teachers the same salaries regardless of their specialty, and changing that takes political will.
Elizabeth Bettini, a professor of special education at Boston University, says, in many places, there’s no one fighting for this change. One reason why is because society doesn’t acknowledge the additional expertise and work that goes into teaching special education.
The skills administrators value in special education teachers are often personality traits, like patience and kindness, Bettini says, pointing to studies where researchers interviewed school leaders. That sets low expectations, and makes special education seem like “a de-skilled profession,” she explains.
“It seems like, ‘Oh, well, why would we pay you more for the skills you have working with students with disabilities when those are just, like, your natural caring skills?’ “
Bettini says higher pay for special education teachers would recognize their expertise and help make it a more attractive job.
For some special education teachers, money won’t be enough
Higher pay is just one piece of the puzzle. Experts say states also need strong pipelines for training new educators, and, in order to keep retention high, teachers need support from school administrators.
Those are two things former special education teacher Emily Abrams didn’t always feel she had. In 2021, her third year as a special educator, Abrams worked with students with behavioral challenges at a central Indiana elementary school.
The work was exhausting and often left her feeling “super defeated,” Abrams says. “After I would get finished with a day, you know, I’d go home and cry.”
It was also a physical job that sometimes got scary. Like a day in March 2021 when a student became violent, and Abrams and a coworker tried to put him in a padded seclusion room. Those rooms are controversial, but many schools use them when staff worry students will be a danger to themselves or others.
“He grabbed the computer charger, yanked it out of the wall and … hit me with it,” Abrams recalls. “And then [he] used his body as well to kick me numerous times. It was just utter chaos throughout the whole thing.”
She believes the encounter lasted more than 30 minutes.
Marie Eriel Hobro for NPR
Abrams left school that day with bruised and swollen shins. Less than a month later, she quit. Now, she answers email questions for a medical company.
“I have zero stress in this new position,” she says. “I can turn my computer off after eight hours a day and live my life.”
Abrams says no amount of money could convince her to go back to special education.
Heather Carll, the teacher in Hawaii, knows money won’t be enough to make up for other problems — like inadequate staffing, training or administrative support. But it could help persuade some teachers to stay.
“It’s really easy to just give up and say, ‘Forget it,’ ” Carll says. “I think if the money keeps people to kind of stick with it a little bit, you can get over the hump.”
Carll believes that if extra pay convinces teachers to stay longer, it will give students important stability; they will learn more and finish school better prepared for life, she says. “There’s a huge ripple effect.”
Nicole Cohen edited this story for broadcast and for the web.