Indiana lawmakers are among those worried that the state’s rush to end emergency permits for special education teachers will leave schools with unfilled positions to help students with disabilities.
Indiana violated federal law without repercussions for years by issuing emergency permits for unqualified educators to teach special education, including more than 1,200 licenses in the 2019-20 school year. Now the state aims to comply with federal law by requiring special education teachers to be fully licensed or to follow new guidelines for provisional licensing. The Indiana Department of Education notified schools in June that it plans to end the use of emergency permits next school year.
Advocates told WFYI that it is better for the highest need students in the state to be taught by fully qualified teachers. But several leaders, including lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, are concerned schools won’t be able to fill posts for teachers with just nine months left for educators to meet the new requirements.
"It's unrealistic for us to think that — for the department to think that — we're going to be able to fix this tomorrow," said Rep. Bob Behning (R-Indianapolis), chair of the House Education Committee.
Behning said Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner, who began in January, is dealing with a problem that preceded her administration. But one year may be “too short a runway” in part because the state is facing a broader shortage of teachers and workers.
Districts across the state are struggling to hire staff, including substitute teachers. South Bend Community Schools recently contracted with a company to provide temporary virtual instruction for some general education classes until teachers can be hired to fill vacancies.
"The shortage is everywhere. It's not just in special ed,” Behning said. But he said it’s especially concerning that schools are relying on emergency permits for special education because “these are the most vulnerable students in the school, and making sure they have the best educators is something we need to take as a priority.”
Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary), a member of the House Education Committee, agreed with Behning about the licensing situation.
Smith said the state should offer incentives for teachers to pursue training in special education.
“Indiana has known for decades — not just years, but decades — that we've had a shortage of math, science and special education teachers,” he said. “And we've done nothing to provide incentives in order to attract persons to those fields.”
The IDOE plans to use temporary federal COVID-19 relief money to fund a tuition assistance program for teachers pursuing licenses in special education, but details have not been released. In the long-term, the state may also need to provide more funding for special education teacher training, Behning said.
Other ideas for addressing the special education teacher shortage are more controversial.
Typically, union contracts stipulate that teachers are paid the same salaries regardless of their specialities — with elementary school educators making as much as those in hard to fill positions such as math and special education teachers. Behning, the Indiana House's top education lawmaker, said the state legislature should consider giving schools flexibility to increase pay for teachers in high-demand areas.
Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill agreed that special education teachers have responsibilities that other educators don’t shoulder, including a higher paperwork load and compliance with both state and federal special education law. But he stopped short of saying they should be paid more than other educators.
“We have got to listen to our special education teachers about, how do we balance their teaching workload, and all of that paperwork required?” Gambill said. “What do we need to help balance that work?”
Kim Dodson, CEO of the nonprofit disability advocacy organization The Arc of Indiana, believes the state could mitigate the special education teacher shortage by including special education certification as a routine part of teacher preparation programs.
Regardless of what subject or grade level they intend to teach, all educators should come out of school with the training and certification necessary to teach special education students, she said.
“There are very few things that are good for students with disabilities that are also not good for students without disabilities,” Dodson said.
Dodson said state officials were receptive to her suggestion, but she hasn’t seen any evidence to suggest there’s a concerted effort to push teacher preparation programs in that direction.
In the field
Many Indiana school districts rely on teachers with emergency permits to educate students with special needs.
Fort Wayne Community Schools, which enrolls 28,000 students, received 43 emergency permits for special education teachers in the 2019-20 school year.
“It's not something that we really like to do. But we've been in situations where it was either that or we weren't going to have a teacher,” spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
Stockman said the district is no longer hiring special education teachers on emergency permits, and the human resources department is working with current special education teachers on emergency permits to help them comply with the new state policy. The district also encouraged building principals to help teachers on emergency permits enroll in programs that lead to certification.
South Bend Community Schools received 50 emergency permits from the state for teachers in special education fields in 2019-20. One reason the 16,000-student district hired so many teachers with emergency permits is because it used to pay less than surrounding districts, which made it hard to compete for teachers, said Assistant Superintendent Brandon White.
The school system increased pay to $41,000 for starting teachers last year, which White believes will help boost recruitment. But he still worries that without emergency permits, the district will not be able to hire enough special education teachers next year, and the fully licensed teachers will be responsible for more students.
“This is just going to harm some of our most vulnerable and neediest students,” White said. “It makes it challenging when we are facing teacher shortages in all areas, to put another kind of hindrance on what we can do to support students.”