By Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven
When 11-year-old Nico started school in July, he and his classmates didn’t have a teacher.
Instead, the certified special ed teacher next door created lesson plans for the class of six students at Holly Grove Elementary School in Wake County. Nico has autism and a seizure disorder. The other five kids in his class range in age from 8 to 11 and also have disabilities.
The teacher making the lesson plans split her time between teaching Nico’s class and her own, according to the district spokesperson, Lisa Luten. When she returned to her own students, others would take over: a substitute, an instructional aide, a teacher on their planning period, etc.
Over the course of about five months, the school struggled to fill the position. As the weeks stretched on, parents told the school they were concerned — including Nico’s mom, Carinne Mossa. In August, she sent an email to Catherine Truitt, the state superintendent of public instruction.
“I am concerned that the mandated services in my son’s [individualized education program] are not being delivered in this environment,” Mossa wrote, as she explained the setup in her son’s classroom. “This is a group of students who need a certified special educator leading their day. I’m curious what is being done on the government level to end this teacher shortage? I heard about a $1,200 sign on bonus, but frankly that number is missing a zero.
“Our children deserve better than this,” Mossa wrote.
Truitt responded and suggested that the school could be in violation of a federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires that public schools provide students with disabilities a “Free Appropriate Public Education.” That means schools must provide the proper learning accommodations each child needs, delivered by a certified and trained special education instructor.
Truitt wrote that she would check with others in her department to see what actions parents could take in this situation. Mossa thanked her. The next day, though, she got disappointing news.
“There is no legal recourse for a parent when the school is doing everything they can to find and hire qualified teachers,” Truitt wrote to Mossa. “This is definitely a pipeline problem as not enough teachers are going into special education to keep up with Wake County’s growing population. I wish there was more we at [the Department of Public Instruction] could do for you.”
Mossa didn’t like that response. Also, it’s not that simple.
States are required by federal law to provide an accessible and meaningful education to children with disabilities. Advocates and researchers argue that schools can’t sidestep that obligation — even when they’re facing labor issues. The current shortage of special ed teachers isn’t new. It’s long-standing, grounded firmly in structural issues that show no signs of abating.
‘It’s their basic job to provide instruction’
“We find that response very frustrating because it’s their basic job to provide instruction,” said Virgina Fogg, the supervising attorney of the education team at Disability Rights. “If you pay somebody enough, they will fill that position. Often what we see in situations like this is incentives need to be added to the pay in order to get that position filled.”
Moreover, she said, “You can’t just put a non-special education teacher in a special education classroom, or ask them to provide a special education instruction. It has to be done by a special education teacher.”
In fact, it’s federally required.
Special education teachers are required by law to have “content knowledge and skills to serve children with disabilities,” said Caitlin Whalan Jones, the director of the Education Law Program at the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte.
Additionally, they must have “obtained full certification as a special education teacher — which could include certification obtained through an alternative route if the alternative route meets the federal requirements as well — or they’ve passed the state special education teacher licensing exam and hold a license to teach in the state,” she explained, reading from a memo published in October from the federal Department of Education.
“There’s no waiver, even on a temporary basis, for those federal requirements,” Whalan Jones said. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room.”
Schools can hire teachers who are in the process of pursuing their certification, but they have to get mentorship and professional development, and they can’t serve in that role for more than three years without their certification.
The Department of Public Instruction has a guidance document advising schools on how they can meet these federal requirements when dealing with the labor shortage. The agency suggests that a school rotate a certified special education teacher back and forth between their classroom and the vacant classroom, the vacant classroom being overseen the rest of the time by a substitute.
That is the plan Wake County implemented for Nico’s class.
Blair Rhodes, the Department of Public Instruction spokesperson, said schools “have been made aware” of their obligations outlined in the federal memo and that the DPI interprets the situation in Wake County “as a good faith effort to mitigate learning losses while vacancies are being filled.”
Others are skeptical if a substitute being overseen by a certified teacher really meets the requirements.
“I’m not sure where that [interpretation] comes from,” Whalan Jones said. “My understanding is that they need to follow federal law and have someone who is qualified as a special education teacher in order to actually provide special education services to students.”
Workforce shortage worsens
North Carolina, like the rest of the country, is facing a massive teacher shortage. Part of the reason is the pipeline, as Truitt mentioned. But low wages are also a problem. The average starting salary for a teacher in the state is $37,127, putting it in 45th place nationwide, according to data from the National Education Association.
The state education department only collects data on job vacancies on the first and 40th school day of the year, not in real time. But the job dashboard the state uses to post vacancies, TeachNC.org, shows thousands of openings across the state — hundreds of which are for special education teachers and instructional assistants.
In Wake County, the outlook is similarly bleak. According to the school district’s job site, there are 543 teaching positions open — about 120 for special ed teachers — and nearly 400 open positions for instructional support staff.
Though it’s occurring alongside the general teacher shortage, the shortage of special education teachers is more complicated, according to those who work and do research in the field.
“In times when we see less of a shortage of other teachers, we’ve always had more difficulty to keep special ed positions fully staffed,” said Kara Hume, a former special ed teacher and current education professor at the University of North Carolina. “It’s worse now than it has been, but it has never been great.”
Multiple structural problems underlie the shortage. To start, certification to teach special ed generally takes longer to obtain than other teaching certifications.
“There’s sometimes just a longer commitment to prepare as a special ed teacher that might be less attractive to people,” Hume said. “And then once in schools, we see higher attrition rates for special ed teachers.”
Special ed teachers often report that they don’t feel supported by their school’s administration. They say they lack ongoing professional development resources, and that the administrative paperwork burdens they have to deal with for each student are too high.
They also end up responsible for many of the other professionals who work with their students: supervising paraprofessionals and coordinating with therapists and other health care providers. They often have to advocate for their students to be included in basic school activities, like music and art class.
All that and more helps explain why the field sees higher rates of burnout and turnover than other teaching specialties.
“I was a special ed teacher for eight years,” Hume said. “Seven years is about the average for a special ed teacher, so I feel like I’ve just made it.”
It leaves children who often have the greatest level of need with the fewest options.
Without permanent teachers, kids miss specialized instruction
Some advocates have noted an increase in kids with disabilities being forced to receive services at home rather than in school, or having their days shortened because schools don’t have the capacity due to vacant positions.
“I think the biggest impact is the support staff — the extra people that help the kids manage their day,” said Janet Price-Ferrell, executive director at FIRST WNC, which supports and advocates for children with disabilities.
As reported by Education NC in 2021, DPI data show the state has lost about 9,400 teacher assistants since the 2008-09 school year.
Whalan Jones said she’s observed similar issues in Charlotte, where her organization is based.
“We have seen, overall, staff shortages and heard about them, but we’ve also seen some schools who are not able to provide special education teachers — or enough special education teachers — to fulfill the requirements of students’ IEPs,” Whalan Jones said.
Not having a permanent, qualified teacher can be detrimental to all children, and that’s especially true for children like Nico. Before the 1970s, many public schools explicitly barred children with disabilities from attending. Since then, federal and state governments have passed laws requiring school districts to accommodate and provide services to these children.
However, there has not been sufficient funding to fully implement the services these laws require.
An IEP, or individualized education program, describes the learning accommodations a student with a disability needs in order to be successful in school.
“When you have fairly regular turnover of staff, there isn’t one person who really knows what those students need and can help that student advocate for themselves,” said Hume, from UNC. “And so we see really the IEP being enacted less for those students.”
A permanent special education teacher will know how to help kids through their particular needs. A revolving cast of substitutes won’t.
A free and appropriate education
State and federal law requires public schools to provide a free education to students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment possible.
“And so that means students aren’t being charged for the special education that they’re getting, and it’s appropriate. It’s not just on paper, but it’s something that’s meaningful and actually meeting their needs,” explained Crystal Grant, a law professor at Duke and the director of the school’s Children’s Law Clinic.
What an appropriate education looks like can vary dramatically for each student.
“It’s really individualized, and so it’s hard to make broad determinations” about whether those rights are being violated by a staffing situation, Grant said.
If a student with ADHD has an IEP that requires they receive modified assignments — a worksheet with 20 questions instead of 50, for example — that’s something a sub could implement easily.
But if a child with dyslexia needs one-on-one sessions with a reading specialist, and the school doesn’t have one? “That’s really clear,” Grant said. “It’s not as clear where there is an underqualified teacher in the classroom and you’re not sure if this student is still getting the instruction that meets their needs.”
That individual basis is the cornerstone of special education, but it also makes tracking systematic compliance with the law difficult.
“The mechanisms for measuring progress are not well developed in North Carolina,” said Fogg, from Disability Rights. “IEPs are a year long and generally — not always — but generally teachers change from year to year, and their IEP teams change from year to year.”
With so many new sets of eyes, implementing changes becomes fragmented, and tracking progress is difficult.
Disparities in more ways than one
The situation in Nico’s classroom was the kind of unclear Grant was talking about. According to his IEP progress reports, things were going OK. He was hitting many of his goals. But Mossa had another fear.
If Nico were to have a seizure in class, he’d need his medication dispensed immediately. Would a new sub or instructional aide or another teacher know that? Even if they did, would they know where the medication was? Or how to administer it?
“That’s a nightmare, and that’s not OK,” said Fogg. It felt that way for Mossa too.
“It’s a shame,” Mossa said. “[Our children] have constitutional rights that are being swept under the rug.”
Disparities in education are nothing new for North Carolina. They’re at the heart of the infamous Leandro case, which is about inequity in school funding. In the state, much school funding happens at the county level. Counties with wealthier residents get to spend more money on their schools than do low-income counties, which results in educational experience and outcome disparities for students.
“One of the groups of children that are disproportionately impacted by low school funding are children with disabilities,” said Grant, from Duke. “Congress has never fully funded the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], so those issues have been long-standing. And I think things like the pandemic and the teacher shortage just make that worse — and then if you are dealing with an under-resourced school district, that’s another strike.”
Recourse for parents
The main recourse for parents of children with disabilities who aren’t getting the education they’re entitled to is to file a complaint with the Department of Public Instruction. They can also request that their child be given additional services to make up for what was lost, what’s known as “compensatory education.”
But that’s not always the best option.
“Compensatory education services are not always a great remedy, depending on the needs of a student with disabilities,” Whalan Jones said. “They could have missed 100 hours of special education services. If a school says, ‘OK, yeah, we’re gonna give you one for one,’” that means a student will have to do 100 more hours of school on top of their regular school day.
It can sometimes end up feeling like a punishment, rather than a solution.
About a week before school let out for winter break in December, Nico’s class finally got a permanent teacher. As the students slowly come back to school, Mossa feels more at ease.
“I honestly took a lot of his education into my own hands,” Mossa said. She’s set him up with private speech therapists, in addition to applied behavior analysis and occupational therapy.
“At least now I feel like I have some control over his learning,” she said, “or lack thereof.”