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Why Now Is the Perfect Time to Solve the Special Education Teacher Shortage

By: Kevin Monnin, M.Ed.; Jamie Day, M.Ed.; Morgan Strimel, M.Ed.; and Kasey Dye, M.Ed.

The Special Education Teacher Shortage: A Policy Analysis

In the United States, all students with disabilities are promised access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). An issue arises, though, in staffing a special education workforce to meet this requirement. 

For example, 49 states and the District of Columbia currently report shortages of special educators (U.S. Department of Education, 2021). More specifically, this includes 98% of the nation’s school districts (U.S. Department of Education, 2020). Further, teacher attrition is increasing at a rate that is parallel to that of the national population of students with disabilities, and the percentage of students receiving special education services is also growing (National Education Association, 2019).

Due to the dual increase of teacher attrition and students receiving special education services, there is a severe need in the field of special education to address the shortage of educators. Therefore, this blog post aims to examine current content of the discussion surrounding the special education teacher shortage, including political factors, the role of stakeholders, and potential solutions that can be implemented at various levels of government.


To fully understand the special education teacher shortage, researchers, advocates, and policymakers must understand the present-day state of education in the U.S. and the context in which the current debate regarding the teacher shortage is occurring. Notably, the special education teacher shortage is situated within the challenge of the broader teacher shortage. Across the nation, content areas such as math, science, bilingual education, and career and technical education all suffer from a shortage of qualified teachers (Sutcher et al., 2016).

In contemplating the politics of the teacher shortage, the sentiment that all students should have a qualified teacher is not inherently controversial or political; however, the methods policymakers seek to attract, prepare, and retain teachers differ based on political factors and ideology (Fowler, 2009). Similarly, policymakers’ understanding of the teacher shortage, including its causes and impact, varies significantly. Further, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, education has moved to the forefront of the public consciousness, and with this awareness may come increased attention from policymakers seeking to remedy a decades-old problem (Vegas & Winthrop, 2020).

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate the teacher shortage as experienced teachers retire early and others leave the profession altogether (García & Weiss, 2020). The implications of this predicted rise in attrition rates remain to be seen; however, a thorough analysis of the special education teacher shortage may help guide policymakers and other stakeholders in crafting and implementing solutions to an increasingly urgent issue.

Political Factors

Since the beginning of 2021, the United States’ political culture has made significant shifts that have dramatically altered the current policymaking climate. This began with the conclusion of the most recent presidential election cycle and swearing-in of the Biden-Harris administration on January 21, which changed the composition of the executive branch from Republican to Democratic leadership.

A New Administration

Having taken the lead of a country in the middle of a global pandemic, President Biden has placed this challenge at the forefront of his ambitious agenda (see The White House, 2021b). “Build back better,” the Administration’s slogan, means managing the immediate needs caused by the coronavirus pandemic and using the power of the federal government to strengthen facets of our society and fix systemic issues (Biden Harris Democrats, 2020).

With narrow Democratic control of Congress only guaranteed through this congressional session, the Biden Administration appears eager to use the federal government’s power to meet the needs of the citizens. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and policy proposals such as the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan emphasize President Biden’s willingness to put his political capital behind ambitious plans.

The special education teacher shortage is undoubtedly a longstanding issue that could use the federal governments’ attention given its pervasiveness. A solid first step toward remedying this issue is the President’s proposal for $9 billion dollars in funding to address the teacher shortage, including funding for teacher preparation and increasing the number of teachers of color (The White House, 2021a). This proposal demonstrates that the teacher shortage, and factors contributing to it, are on the Administration’s policy agenda.

Although an important first step, proposing legislation and passing legislation are two very different processes. Proposing legislation highlights the issue as important to the presidential administration, but passing legislation is almost entirely the role of Congress.

Change in Congress

As outlined in the U.S. Constitution, all federal legislation must begin in Congress. Understanding the political climate can help stakeholders anticipate changes in education policy in the coming months and years. In addition to shifting to a Democratic presidential administration, the Legislative branch of the 117th Congress has also come under Democratic control.

The U.S. Senate now contains 48 Democrats, 50 Republicans, and two independents (both caucus with the Democrats). As a result, Vice-President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote (American Bar Association, 2021). The U.S. House of Representatives is also under Democratic control, with 221 Democrats, 211 Republicans, and three vacancies (American Bar Association, 2021).

This majority control is critical for the advancement of any education-related policy reform, as “legislatures controlled by the Democratic party are more likely to support increased spending on public education than are Republicans” (Fowler, 2009, p. 89). Even so, moderate Democratic Senators such as Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), as well as any senator’s ability to filibuster bills (see Reynolds, 2020), make passing any major legislation without bipartisan support a major challenge (Pazzanese, 2021). Nonetheless, with the entirely-partisan passage of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2020, Congressional Democrats have demonstrated that it is possible.

Recent Legislation

As the first significant step made by the Biden-Harris Administration in their first 100 days, President Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 Relief Package that included $170 billion explicitly designated for education (House Committee on Education and Labor, 2021). The bill was widely supported by Democrats, with the entire caucus in both the House of Representatives and Senate voting to send it to the President’s desk without any Republican support. President Biden signed the bill on March 9, 2021.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 served as the first opportunity for Democrats to test the strength of their majority control. Within the $170 billion passed for education, there was a focus on reopening schools safely through measures such as modifying spaces and increasing personal protective equipment (House Committee on Education and Labor, 2021).

As billions in federal funding begins to make its way to the states, localities will have flexibility in utilizing this funding, given the diverse nature of school and district needs (House Committee on Education and Labor, 2021). As a result of the now-amplified special education teacher shortage, it can be anticipated that state education agencies will need to use this funding from the COVID-19 Relief Package to mitigate the growing attrition of special educators.

The passing of this bill may play a critical role in maintaining, if not increasing, the special education teacher workforce over time. In an effort to uphold the federal promise of FAPE for students with disabilities (a mandate initiated by Congress), it will be imperative to propose and implement short-term and long-term solutions to remedy the teacher shortage. 

Understanding the roles and motivations of stakeholders may help this process as these individuals and groups can expedite or slow the policy process and the implementation of these potentially helpful solutions.

Key Stakeholders

Although special education teacher shortages negatively influence many groups such as students, families, and teachers, many groups also play an essential role in mitigating the special education teacher shortage. The federal bureaucracy and research organizations play a critical role in implementing policies and educating policymakers.  

The Federal Bureaucracy

As part of the U.S. Department of Education, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) is a key stakeholder related to the special education teacher shortage. Staffed primarily by civil servants (which means elected policymakers do not appoint them), OSEP administers IDEA. Under that purview, OSEP seeks to disseminate research and allocate grant funding to develop special education personnel.

To encourage states and districts to adopt policies to alleviate shortages in their communities, OSEP published 13 briefs as part of an initiative titled Attract, Prepare, Retain: Effective Personnel for All in January 2021. These briefs are strategies for state departments, school districts, and other stakeholders to address the critical shortage of special educators. OSEP breaks down the categories of Attract, Prepare, and Retain into multiple briefs that describe the strategy, share existing research, and give examples of it in action. For example, the “Attract” initiative consists of the following strategies: (a) alternative routes to certification, (b) changing public perceptions, (c) funding and loan forgiveness, and (d) grow your own programs (OSEP, 2021a).

The Attract, Prepare, and Retain initiative demonstrates the critical role that apolitical civil servants within the federal bureaucracy play in the education policy process. Regardless of political shifts, civil servants and the federal bureaucracy serve to ensure that laws and missions set forth by policymakers are effectively administered.

Research Organizations

Research organizations also serve as essential, apolitical sources of knowledge regarding the teacher shortage. In addition to the work being completed at research universities, organizations such as the CEEDAR Center, CEC, and the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education (HECSE) serve to inform policymakers as they craft legislation related to the teacher shortage.

In February 2021, HECSE published a fact sheet about the shortage of special education teachers and faculty. They found that the special education field has the most significant shortage of teachers in the country and that “states have increasingly turned to the use of long-term substitutes for special education teachers, some with only a high school diploma and most with no teacher training at all." There has also been a shortage of special education faculty at universities around the country, which further adds to the special education teacher shortage. 

The Policy Process

The U.S. policy process is a multi-faceted sequence that moves through various stages. To demonstrate this, Fowler (2009, p. 16) developed a framework that outlines the six distinct stages of the policy process:

  1. Issue definition
  2. Agenda setting
  3. Policy formation
  4. Policy adoption
  5. Implementation
  6. Evaluation

In the U.S., the special education teacher shortage has been well recognized by the special education research community and state and local education agencies as one issue that negatively affects outcomes for special education students (García & Weiss, 2020; CEEDAR Center, 2020). Furthermore, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has served to intensify the already critical special education teacher shortage.

In general, a plethora of federal, state, and local policy recommendations to alleviate the shortage have been introduced by organizations such as the Economic Policy Institute and CEEDAR Center. However, the challenge for policymakers lies in turning these recommendations into impactful yet feasible legislation that can be adopted and then implemented by the U.S. Department of Education, states, and local education agencies.

Passing legislation, in general, is no small feat; however, education policy is a specific challenge for federal policymakers due to the principle of federalism. Federalism refers to how the national or federal government and state or local governments share powers and responsibilities. Public education in the U.S. is primarily implemented and funded at the state and local level. One reason for this is because needs such as funding and staffing differ from state to state and district to district. Attempting to remedy an issue such as the teacher shortage from a federal mandate or blanket funding may overlook districts and schools’ diverse needs at the local level.

Because of this, federal legislation must be specific enough to remedy acute problems while simultaneously broad enough to be implemented effectively across states.

Federal Solutions

To date, there has been no comprehensive bill introduced, passed, and sent to the Presidents’ desk to help explicitly alleviate the special education teacher shortage. However, policy solutions to the teacher shortage have been included in more expansive legislation, such as IDEA and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESEA).

For example, under Part D of IDEA, funds are allocated through OSEP to prepare special education teachers and teacher educators. Although these “support programs” constitute only 1% of the total national expenditure for educating students with disabilities, they are one example of how federal policies, and funding, in particular, can serve to benefit students on a national scale (Yell et al., 2017).

Federal policymakers have tried loosening federal policies regulating teacher certification. The most recent reauthorization of ESEA made an effort to increase the number of special education teachers serving students by eliminating the requirement set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that teachers be “highly qualified.” In practice, this means teachers can now enter the classroom as teachers of record with only a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field. Proponents claim that this provision will increase the number of special education teachers, while critics argue that lowering the standards for teacher certification will only increase the number of unqualified special education teachers unable to meet the diverse needs of their students (Shepherd et al., 2016).

Changing mandates through reauthorization of previous legislation is only one way the federal government impacts the teacher shortage; another crucial method for alleviating teacher shortages is funding teacher personnel preparation programs. OSEP manages personnel preparation grant competitions and distributes significant funding awards. Specifically, these awards support research-based training and professional development of special education personnel and ensure that personnel are fully qualified to serve students with disabilities. While this OSEP policy-based solution falls short in fully addressing the special education teacher shortage, it can be argued that shortages would be far worse without federal funding on personnel preparation programs and other, more substantial federal expenditures

State and District Solutions

Policy is not just crafted on Capitol Hill and implemented at the Department of Education. Important policy is also crafted, adopted, and implemented at the state and local level. State assemblies, state boards of education, town councils, and district school boards all participate in all facets of the policy process. In fact, policies passed at the state and local levels are likely more impactful to citizens’ everyday lives than federal legislation (Fowler, 2009).

In addition to allocating their own tax dollars to programs, state and local governments’ responsibility is to allocate federal funding. Federal funding can be issued by Congress and implemented on the state or district level. For example, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) granted nearly $67.8 billion to the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief Fund (ESSER) to be allocated to individual states based on the proportion that each state receives under ESEA Title-IA (ESSER Tracker, 2021). In order to receive CARES Act funding, states are required to disperse 90% of their funds to local education agencies, where they are further divided and implemented. There is no prohibition on states and districts using CARES Act or American Recovery Act funds to support interventions to attract, prepare, and retain special education teachers in their communities, and research-based interventions are readily available to policymakers.

OSEP outlines several research-based strategies for increasing the number of special education teachers (OSEP, 2021). One common strategy implemented on a state and district level is alternative route programs. The U.S. Department of Education has permitted states to determine alternative routes to obtain teaching licensure since the mid-1980s. Alternative routes can be defined as a nontraditional and accelerated path for individuals to obtain a state teaching licensure (U.S. Department of Education, 2020). The purpose of state alternative routes to recruit teacher candidates who do not have a traditional education preparation background to fulfill high-need teaching areas. Alternative routes are prevalent in special education to address the special education teacher shortage (Peyton et al., 2020). Policies vary by state, but most alternative route programs share the commonality of hiring individuals who have a bachelor’s degree but lack education certification and training. Alternative route teacher candidates instead participate in internship models, where they complete training while teaching. Alternative routes provide a fast and cost-effective path for individuals to teach special education (Dewey et al., 2017). As a result, many special education teacher candidates pursue alternative routes, and special education vacancies are quickly filled.

However, challenges arise when looking at the long-term retention rates of teachers who received their teaching credentials through alternative route programs. Alternative route teachers are more likely to experience higher attrition rates than special education teachers who go through traditional preparation programs. Podolsky and colleagues (2016) reported that alternative route teachers are 25% more likely to leave the profession than special education teachers who went through traditional programs.

Reasons for attrition include special education teachers not feeling adequately prepared in their alternative route programs (Mason-Williams et al., 2020). Therefore, policy solutions such as providing federal funding to personnel preparation programs, loosening licensure requirements, and alternative routes may not fully address the systemic causes of the special education teacher shortage.

Next Steps

The ongoing special education teacher shortage is a national crisis that must be addressed. The increased special education teacher attrition, exacerbated by COVID-19, directly threatens equitable learning opportunities for students with disabilities.

The Biden Administration’s willingness to place the teacher shortage on an ambitious agenda is hopeful; however, any funding or legislation will have to pass a highly-partisan Congress, already spending-weary from trillions in COVID relief bills. If the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan are passed, the negotiations between the political parties will likely result in less federal funding than initially proposed by the Biden Administration.

To whatever extent possible, advocacy groups and stakeholders should use their political power to ensure that the proposed $9 billion is non-negotiable (see The White House, 2021a). Given the potential for increased federal funding, states and local education agencies should reach out to stakeholders such as research organizations and the Office of Special Education Programs for actionable solutions to the teacher shortage in their communities. These research-based solutions are readily available (see Office of Special Education Programs, 2020a).

Unfortunately, many of these solutions temporarily increase the recruitment of special education teachers but fail to combat the special education teacher attrition rate. More federal, state, and local policy solutions are needed to tackle systemic factors associated with teacher turnover: compensation, teacher support, and teaching working conditions (Podolsky et al., 2016). As Mason-Williams and colleagues (2020) note, “…strategies exist that may mitigate shortages and improve working conditions in the short term, but our reliance on them is akin to tarring potholes or patching cracks in dikes.” (p.56).

Nonetheless, multiple stakeholders at every level of government need to come together to enact short-term and long-term solutions to combat the causes and effects of this clearly defined issue. If ever there was an opportunity to solve the special education teacher shortage, the time is now.



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Posted:  1 June, 2021
Author: Kevin Monnin, M.Ed.; Jamie Day, M.Ed.; Morgan Strimel, M.Ed; and Kasey Dye, M.Ed.
Headshot of Kevin Monnin

Kevin Monnin, M.Ed., is a Ph.D. student in the OSEP-funded Policy and Research-Intensive Special Educators (PRISE) doctoral training program at George Mason University. Kevin’s current research is...

Read more from Kevin Monnin, M.Ed.; Jamie Day, M.Ed.; Morgan Strimel, M.Ed; and Kasey Dye, M.Ed.

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