AUSTIN, Texas — Thousands of additional children will soon be eligible for special education services after state officials eliminated an illegal cap that artificially tamped down Texas special education rolls for a decade.

But even if the state fully funds the estimated $3 billion cost of providing that extra instruction, educators say one big question remains: Where will schools find up to 9,000 new special education teachers?

Schools already have a hard time recruiting special education teachers, so much so that the state offers incentives such as student loan forgiveness programs. But those incentives aren’t enough to meet the demand, leaving schools across the state struggling every year to find enough teachers to provide specialized services to students. Now as the number of students needing extra services is expected to rise dramatically, finding educators will be even more difficult, state education officials and advocacy groups say.

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“Nationally, we do not have enough special education teachers in the country,” said Penny Schwinn, the Texas Education Agency’s deputy commissioner for academics. “Texas is no different. We have shortages at the local level and in almost every state, and that’s because it’s a very high needs field. It’s a very challenging job.”

A 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation and a subsequent federal audit found that the Texas Education Agency illegally set an 8.5 percent benchmark that was a de facto cap on the number of students receiving special education services. The cap was in place for more than a decade, and was well below the national average of 13 percent.

In eliminating that cap, state officials estimate that it will cost the state up to $3.3 billion to provide special education to more than 150,000 additional students by 2021 — about a 30 percent increase. The legislature also needs to find $50 million more to provide compensatory services to students who were wrongly denied special education services in the past.

‘It has to happen’

In the 2017-18 school year, there were 32,000 teachers serving nearly 500,000 special education students in Texas, about one teacher for every 16 special education students. Since state and federal law requires special education students to spend as much time as possible in a regular classroom, many of these teachers are not dedicated special education teachers.

If the state were to keep its current teacher-to-student ratio, Texas would need to hire more than 9,000 teachers by 2021 to keep up with the estimated increase in special education students.

Kristin McGuire, the director of governmental relations of the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education, said meeting staffing demands remains an open question, but “it has to happen.”

“Our members always find a way to make it happen, but I have no idea how it’ll happen. We are already in a shortage,” McGuire said. “Even with the money, I don’t know where we are going to find the teachers. Right now what districts are going to have to do, as they always do, is look at their staffing models and adjust.”

State hopes to boost retention

TEA and the Department of Education have already declared a teacher shortage in special education. Several statewide studies show special education teachers leave the profession or take other jobs at higher rates compared to other subjects. That leaves districts having to find replacements, often opting to hire educators without all the state-required certifications. In the 2016-17 school year, about 15 percent of all special education teachers were not certified.

The state also has shortages in teachers of high school math, high school career and technical education and English as a second language.

As part of its plan to boost special education services, TEA is awarding grants to schools that need staff to meet requests for new special education evaluations. But Schwinn could not say how exactly the state will find more special education teachers, and instead said the agency is establishing policy forums to discuss how to incentivize and retain teachers.

“We haven’t established a fail-safe to ensure we have enough teachers in that area,” Schwinn said. “It is something that we are actively considering and talking about.”

© 2018 Houston Chronicle
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