How Hawaii May Have Fixed Its Special Education Teacher Shortage

A few years after beginning her career as a special education teacher in Hawaii’s public schools, Heather Carll decided to leave the industry. As a special education teacher, she had to deal with an enormous amount of paperwork, meetings, and legal duties.

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) had become too much of a burden for her to bear, so she decided to take a break from them and explore what it was like to teach without them.

Carll started off teaching general education before finally landing a better-paying job in the local school system. –

She said it was a different experience. My favorite part of my job was dealing with children.

Even though her salary would be reduced by teaching, she could no longer bear it.

In 2020, Hawaii began to pay special education instructors $10,000 extra per year, a development that had been anticipated for some time.

Without the disparity, Carll argues, he couldn’t return to the classroom.

Hawaii is not the only state reporting shortages of special education instructors to the federal government this school year.

Since there are so few qualified special education instructors available, several states, including Hawaii, are turning to non-special education teachers to help with their most difficult kids, including the deaf and those with difficult behavioral issues.

But in 2020, Hawaii’s salary raise was a game changer. According to district statistics, nearly a third of the state’s special education posts were unfilled in October 2019 or occupied by instructors without the necessary credentials. By the end of October 2021, that percentage had been reduced to roughly 15%.

I believe that it has worked well for us in our state,” said the president of Hawaii State Teachers Association Osa Tui. There is little doubt that it is having a significant influence on the retention of students in special education as well as bringing new students to the field.

Special education teachers aren’t the only ones getting a raise in Hawaii. This school year, the city of Detroit started paying a $15,000 surcharge to the district, which officials believe is already having a positive impact. Stipends that are less generous in big districts aren’t uncommon either.

On the other hand, state-level incentives, such as those offered in places like Hawaii and Detroit, have failed to spread.

According to Chad Aldeman, a Georgetown University professor who studies school finance, “It is irritating to see districts acknowledge they have this difficulty and then not take many efforts to solve it.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that students with disabilities get a free and adequate education. It is the federal government’s responsibility to fund 40% of the additional costs of providing special education programs, however this commitment has never been kept by the government at any level. According to the National Education Association, the federal government will only pay roughly 13 percent in fiscal year 2020.

It would raise the expense of delivering services that are already costly if special education instructors were paid more.

Because just a tiny percentage of districts’ staff members are teachers, Aldeman thinks it would have a little effect on district expenditures. According to him, most school districts could afford to raise salaries. Other savings may be made as a result of this.

When districts consider the expense of recruiting and rehiring a teacher who departs, “that may start to impact the equation,” Aldeman says. There’s a financial case for it.

Atlanta Public Schools has high hopes that Aldeman is correct.

For the 2019-2020 school year, the district was trying to fill 30 openings for special education teachers in June 2019. Nicole Lawson, the district’s temporary chief human resources officer, claims that they were offering positions only to lose out to districts that paid more.

Lawson adds that within a month of Atlanta starting to give new special education teachers $3,000 incentives, all of the openings were filled. This year, Atlanta began a pilot program to give same incentives to all special education instructors.

I have a good sense that by providing retention stipends, we will be able to reduce our recruiting costs in the long run,” Lawson adds. As a result, I believe we’ll be able to keep our special education instructors longer.

About 20% of Hawaii’s nearly $2 billion-a-year education budget is scheduled to be spent on pay differences for certified special education instructors this year.

Hawaii State Board of Education Chair Catherine Payne says, “In my opinion, this is a necessary expenditure for the students here who deserve to have teachers who are well trained, licensed and talented in this field.”

Due to the state’s single district structure and statewide stipulation of teacher compensation, Hawaii is in a unique situation. But the epidemic almost wiped out Hawaii’s tourism-based economy only a few weeks after the wage differentials began to take effect.

According to Payne, he and his colleagues were terrified that the state might run out of money. “Everyone was talking about a 20% wage reduction. And it was a little unnerving as well.”

Teachers, parents, and school board members reacted angrily to proposals to reduce the differentials. They decided to maintain paying for special education services.

For the time being, the agency is paying the differentials using federal COVID-19 relief funds. Legislators, on the other hand, are mulling legislation that would give specific financing for the wage raise.

It’s not only the cost that stands in the way of raising the wages of special education instructors. There is a lot of political will required to change this practice in most school districts.

Professor of special education at Boston University, Elizabeth Bettini, claims that in many regions, no one is pushing for this reform. One of the reasons for this is that society does not recognize the extra skill and labor involved in teaching special education.

Bettini cites studies in which researchers interviewed school administrators as evidence that administrators respect patience and compassion in special education instructors. This lowers the bar for students with disabilities and portrays the field as “a de-skilled vocation,” as she puts it.

What I’m saying is that it seems to me that “Oh, well, why would we pay extra for the talents you have dealing with children with disabilities if those are simply like, your inherent caring qualities?”.”

Teachers in special education should be paid more, according to Bettini, to acknowledge their competence and make the position more appealing to others.

Just one component of the puzzle, though, is better compensation. According to experts, states also need solid pipelines for educating new educators, and school administrators must assist teachers in order to maintain retention high.

For former special education teacher Emily Abrams, there were two attributes she lacked. As a special educator in 2021, Abrams worked with pupils with behavioral issues at an elementary school in central Indiana.

Abrams recalls feeling “very dejected” at times due to the exhaustion of the job. “When the day was through, I’d go home and weep,” she said.

Also, it was a grueling, physically demanding work. On March 20, 2021, a student got aggressive, and Abrams and another staff attempted to place him in an isolation chamber padded with duct tape. School personnel often utilize these rooms if they are concerned that pupils pose a threat to themselves or others.

When Abrams recounts what happened, he says, “He ripped the computer charger out of the wall and… struck me.” “After that, he used his whole body to repeatedly kick me. It was a complete and total mess the whole time.”

As far as she knows, the contact lasted at least an hour.

Swollen and bruised legs were the result of Abrams’ fall at school on that day. She left the company less than a month later. She now works as a medical company’s go-to email expert.

“I am completely at ease in my new role,” she explains. At the end of the day, “I can put my computer away for a few hours and go about my day.”

According to Abrams, no amount of money will be able to persuade her to return to a special education setting.

Money alone won’t be enough to fix issues like a lack of personnel, training, or administrative assistance in Hawaii’s schools. However, some instructors may be persuaded to remain.

As Carll puts it, “It’s so simple to simply throw in the towel and say ‘Forget it’.” You can get over the hump, I believe, if the money keeps people motivated to persevere.

Carll thinks that if instructors are paid more, they will remain longer, which will help kids learn more and better prepare them for the real world. A “large ripple effect” may be seen.

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