The school year has started, and parents and students are hopeful that education has returned to “normal” from the last three school years of COVID pandemic-era closures and online learning. For students, the California public school system crumbled under the closures and online classes offered little to no growth in learning. For students with disabilities or special needs, it was nonexistent.
According to Bellwether Education Partners, “In Los Angeles, 15%-20% of English learners, students in foster care, students with disabilities, and homeless students didn’t access any of the district’s online educational materials from March through May (2020).” Students with disabilities or special needs require and rely on personal, hands-on attention from education specialists to be successful. In a pandemic that required no in-person contact and learning through virtual means, education was practically impossible for these students.
While parents of students were having to learn to be teachers overnight in English and Math, parents of special needs students had to learn occupational, speech, and physical therapy to help their kids learn. Many students with disabilities use assistive technology that online platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams are not compatible with. This made remote learning practically impossible.
A May 2020, survey revealed that 40% of parents said their child in special education did not receive any support at all and only 20% of parents said their child was receiving all services.
With the pandemic closures and distance learning behind us, the repercussions of limited education and resources for special needs students is evident. After two years of learning how to educate their children at home, parents are entering the 2022-23 school year with hopes of better resources, proper classroom staffing and personalized care for their children in-person.
Unfortunately, this will not be the case.
There has been a shortage of special education teachers and paraprofessionals for years. The California Teachers Association advocates for ratios of one teacher for every eight mild-moderate students and one teacher for every six moderate-severe students. However, in 2016, there were 17 special education students for each special education teacher in the United States, surpassing the overall student-teacher ratio of 16 students per teacher.
The high ratio is why more parents are turning to homeschooling to educate their special needs kids. As noted in PRI’s recent book The Homeschool Boom, homeschool parents can give their special needs kids the flexible scheduling, individualized curriculum, and one-on-one focus that they would never receive in a traditional public school setting.
Making matters worse is a prevalence of “substandard” credentials and permits for working teachers – substandard meaning emergency permits for those who have not completed a teacher-prep program, intern credentials for those who teach while still completing school or permits for those teaching outside of their subject area. Districts are permitted, by California law, to hire teachers on substandard credentials and permits only when a fully credentialed teacher is not available – and many of them do. According to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the number of new substandard credentials and permits issued in special education has grown from 54% in 2014 to 65% in the 2017-18 school year.
The paraprofessional shortage in the special education space can be attributed to very low salaries. The average Special Education Paraprofessional in California is , but the salary range typically falls between $29,046 and $40,112. According to the California Poverty Measure, 16.4% of Californians lacked enough resources—$35,600 per year for a family of four, on average—to meet basic needs in 2019.
However, you can thank California’s teachers unions for low salaries for special education teachers and aides as they consistently oppose allowing salary variation based on subject. Teachers earn bonuses or increases in salary based on more education or taking more development courses, but the unions fight against offering higher pay to fill teacher positions in specialized subjects such as STEM or special education. Many of these potential teachers simply choose to earn more in the private sector, leaving special needs students without proper instruction.
Emily Humpal is deputy communications director at the Pacific Research Institute.