Minnesota’s Growing Special Education Teacher Shortage: What to Do?

December 19, 2017 • Krista Kaput

Last week we wrote about Minnesota’s November budget forecast, which showed that the state is projected to have a $188 million deficit for the final year of the 2018 and 2019 biennium. While the small deficit is hardly a cause for alarm, the forecast did indicate that unexpected cost increases in special education services is one of the biggest drivers of the deficit and E-12 education spending.

In that same post, we wrote about how Education Evolving has long contended that the rate of special education-identified students could be reduced if schools or districts used early intervention frameworks, like Response to Intervention, as a strategy for supporting struggling students, who might otherwise be identified for special education services.

That said, even if early intervention strategies are used, the fact remains that use of special education services is still increasing statewide. This is particularly important when considered in conjunction with the state’s continued special education teacher shortage. The rest of this post will provide an an overview of this problem, as well as how some programs in the state are trying to rectify it.

A Growing Special Education Teacher Shortage

According to a February 2017 report released by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), the teacher shortage in special education is more severe than that in any other area. Specifically, during the 2015-16 academic year, the state issued 707 special permissions, meaning districts had to hire individuals who “lacked the necessary licenses for the subjects and grades levels taught,” to individuals teaching students with special needs. The report noted that the shortage is likely not going to stop anytime soon, with hiring officials predicting that in the next five years one of the most difficult staff positions to hire for will be special education teachers.

The growing costs of special education services, the dire teacher shortage, and projected continued shortage raises the question: What are the state and districts doing and going to do to recruit, train, and retain special education teachers? Particularly since our students with special needs are a traditionally underserved, not to mention federally protected, group of students.

Some Districts Are “Growing Their Own” to Combat the Shortage

In order to alleviate the special education teacher shortage some districts across the state, including Minneapolis and Saint Paul, have started “Grow Your Own” programs that create the opportunity for individuals to receive a special education teacher license or other subject credentials by providing scholarships or tuition stipends to district employees or district affiliated community members so they can participate in a residency program. This program is an innovative way for districts to create their own teacher pipelines.

The legislature and Governor recently recognized the importance and potential of this program. During the 2017 legislative special session, the “Grow Your Own” program received $1.5 million in appropriations for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years (lines 81.10-82.3). Importantly, the student body for the participating school districts must be at least 30 percent students of color. Education Evolving supports the expansion of this “Grow Your Own” program.

CUE Program Also Offers Special Education Licensure

The Collaborative Urban Education (CUE) Program is another program that has the potential to aid in diminishing the special education teacher shortage. The CUE program is designed to address the “wide gap between the demographics of teachers and students” in the state, by intentionally recruiting people of color to become teachers. Currently, two of the state’s four CUE program participants, University of Saint Thomas and Augsburg University, offer special education teacher licensure.

During the 2017 legislative session, the legislature allocated $1 million to the CUE program for both the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years (lines 82.24-83.18). Each of the state’s four CUE program participants will receive $195,000 for each year. For the remaining $220,000, the commissioner established a competitive grant process for Board of Teaching-approved teacher programs, including alternative licensure programs, for recruiting, training, and inducting teachers of color candidates.

Could the State’s New Tiered-Licensure System Help?

Looking ahead, the new four-tiered teacher licensure system might help to alleviate some of the licensing barriers that had previously existed for individuals who were seeking a special education license, particularly with those from out-of-state.

The new system replaces the state’s former teacher licensure system, which the Office of the Legislative Auditor’s (OLA) called “complex, unclear, and confusing” in their 2016 report. In the same report, the OLA wrote “While there are many causes for the teacher shortage, legislators and others have identified teacher licensure as a contributing factor.”

The new Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB), which replaces the now-dissolved Board of Teaching, will begin operating on January 1. PESLB will be responsible for the implementation and oversight of the new tiered licensure system, which will go into effect on July 1, 2018.

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