Shortage of special education teachers reported, districts desperate to fill positions

Arkansas school districts are finding it increasingly hard to fill special education teacher vacancies, resulting to asking the state for waivers just to keep up with demand. (Photo: KATV)

Arkansas faces yet another teacher shortage, with hundreds of positions that still need to be filled before the school year starts up for most Arkansas students. There are teacher shortages across the board, but nowhere is it felt more than in the field of special education.

According to Arkansas Department of Education statistics, there are nearly 2,800 special education teachers in Arkansas - but nearly 15 percent of those teachers are on waivers from the state in order to fill the immediate need. That means more than 400 special education teachers don’t have the proper license, but are given a waiver on the condition that they work to get a special education license within several years.

Dr. Jerry Guess, superintendent for the Pulaski County Special School District, said as of Tuesday he has 6.5 special education teacher vacancies that need to be filled by the time school starts for the district on August 15.

“Even more significant than that is we have had no interest in those positions,” said Guess. “We did not have applications that we could consider, so I’m very concerned about serving the needs of our special needs students in the district.”

PCSSD isn’t the only district where the problem immediately hits home. As of December 2015, there were 65 full-time special education positions being filled across Arkansas by permanent substitute teachers, according to ADE statistics.

“It’s not easy,” said Sandra Mason-Bisbe, a special education teacher at Pine Forest Elementary in Maumelle. “Every day is a different day, it’s not always so structured.”

The shortage of qualified special education teachers like Mason-Bisbe in Arkansas is partially due to the dwindling number of students pursuing special education and education on a whole. Prospective teachers are turned off by a negative image often portrayed of the education field, in addition to low pay, standardized test teaching, as well as a daunting workload.

Arkansas isn't alone either. Nearly every state in the United States has reported a shortage of special education teachers.

Teachers that end up pursuing a special education license are nearly twice as likely to leave the profession than their counterparts in general education, at a rate of about 12 percent, according to the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services.

Most often, the reason given by special education teachers for leaving the profession has to do with the amount of paperwork required for each of the state’s 57,500 students on an Individualized Education Program – or IEP.

“The paperwork is very intimidating,” said Mason-Bisbe. “It does change often and sometimes it’s very overwhelming, however so much of that paperwork tells a story.”

A shortage of special education teachers in Arkansas isn’t anything new. ADE has put special education on its list of critical shortage areas for the last ten years.

In 2015, ADE put together a Special Education Paperwork Reduction Taskforce, “committed to reviewing special education paperwork to reduce unnecessary items and duplication as much as possible, while maintaining accountability, procedural safeguards, and parental involvement,” according to the ADE Special Education Unit website.

Kim Friedman, director of communications for ADE said, “school age and early childhood programs will have the opportunity to pilot the new streamlined paperwork beginning this fall. ADE will provide information and an overview of the new forms to local special education supervisors and early childhood coordinators later this week, with follow-up training in September.”

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