The Arc of Texas Provides Commentary on Special Education Workforce Solutions
The Arc of Texas Leadership and Advocacy Coordinator Wendy Ward submitted written commentary on potential special education workforce recruitment, retention, and preparation solutions to the Texas Joint House Higher Education and Public Education Committees September 20, 2022. Read the commentary submitted below.
Dear Chairman Dutton, Chairman Murphy, and Members of the Committees:
Thank you for your leadership in addressing key interim charges that have implications for students with disabilities receiving special education services in Texas public schools and charter schools.
The Arc of Texas promotes, protects, and advocates for the human rights and self-determination of more than a half-million Texans with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). We believe the children and families we work with and alongside deserve an effective public education system to provide the services and supports needed for academic success. All students, including students with disabilities receiving special education services, require a robust and stable teacher workforce to deliver on the promise of bright futures with opportunities for post-secondary education, employment, and full participation in their communities.
Accordingly, we have recommendations related to the following interim charge:
Interim Charge #1
A survey conducted earlier this year by the National Education Association found that 55 percent of educators nationwide contemplate leaving their profession sooner than they had planned. In Texas, an astonishing 70 percent of teachers indicate they are considering leaving their jobs. Within the teacher workforce crisis, the stakes are particularly high for special education in Texas. Positions in this area were difficult to fill before the pandemic. For the more than 600,000 students receiving special education services in Texas, it is vital to resolve systemic problems that have inhibited the growth, retention, and preparation of special education teachers for a number of years – not only in the context of rebounding from a public health emergency.
All teachers in Texas, including special education teachers, must be compensated with salaries and benefits that match the cost of living in the districts where they teach and adjusted for inflation consistent with current economic trends in both the state and country. Teachers are facing financial hardship, and housing is an example of hurdles faced when grappling with the challenges of remaining in the profession. Teachers are often priced out of the districts in which they work due to low pay or take on supplemental jobs to remain near their schools.
From 2018-2019 for example, the starting teacher annual salary in Pflugerville ISD increased 11.3 percent for the 2021-2022 school year to approximately $57,000. However, in Pflugerville, the median home price of $428,573 (as of December 2021) represents a 52.3 percent year-over-year increase. Throughout Texas, rents have soared 27 percent from pre-pandemic levels. These factors converge to place significant strain on housing availability for entire communities, including the teacher workforce. Affordable housing is just one element of a broader economic picture for a vast and geographically diverse state.
Lawmakers can alleviate pressure on Texas teachers, including special education teachers who provide services to 11.7 percent of students statewide, by ensuring they receive salaries and benefits commensurate with the cost of living in their local communities so they can better serve all students, including students with disabilities.
Special education teachers contend with burdensome administrative tasks because of the effects of the pandemic and the typical student caseload on any given day. Not only do these teachers plan and teach lessons to more than 600,000 students receiving special education services across Texas, but they also grade papers, produce forms, manage paperwork, participate in admission, review, and dismissal (ARD) committee meetings, meet legal and administrative requirements, interact with parents, and help students receiving special education services transition to adulthood and prepare for continuing education and careers.
Lawmakers must fund the recruitment of additional administrative staff who can assist teachers managing substantial administrative burdens to prevent the feeling of burnout now plaguing the profession, causing teachers to consider quitting altogether. College loan forgiveness for special education teachers and other professionals who enter and stay in the special education profession is another tactic to attract and retain qualified staff. These are sound investments in critical personnel whose retention will help alleviate the current crisis.
For fully inclusive classrooms, all Texas teachers should receive a certification in teaching special education courses to students with disabilities. This approach will allow for cross-training and the ability to shift the focus where needs are in schools at a given time, mitigating staffing shortfalls. Now is the time to build on House Bill 159 passed during the 87th Legislative Session which adds requirements for educator preparation programs to better serve all students, including students with disabilities, more effectively. Lawmakers should invest in programs that prepare teachers to instruct all students to uphold inclusive standards and facilitate and maintain a strong teacher workforce that is ready to break the logjam that will occur as the identification of more students with disabilities meets inadequate levels of staffing.
Special Education Funding
Texas relies on an outdated funding formula that focuses on disability categories rather than student needs. These needs should not be rigidly defined because they fall on a continuum to which services should be categorized for more individualization. The special education service system should thus move away from instructional arrangement to a service intensity model to achieve maximum efficiency. Modernizing the system will produce a cascade of positive effects that can improve morale, spur recruitment, and enable the retention of qualified teachers.
By implementing effective and durable policy solutions, Texas can address structural issues that have compromised the state’s ability to assure a strong and resilient teacher workforce that can withstand numerous stressors. Texas public schools deserve supported teachers who are fundamentally valued. Meaningful commitments from policymakers will help teachers create positive learning environments necessary for all students to reach their full potential.
We appreciate your consideration of these recommendations.