The number of special education students in the state has increased by 10 percent in the last five years, and many of them have acute conditions that were once addressed outside of classroom settings. But as schools scramble to meet their needs, the number of licensed special education teachers in Minnesota is in sharp decline, dropping by almost 10 percent over the same time frame.
Teachers say working with special education students is becoming more difficult and dangerous. Many of those students are bringing more severe problems to already crowded classrooms that lack support staff. Others are prone to violent outbursts that are injuring or frightening teachers.
“Some of our teachers are leaving after a couple of months,” said Mary Roffers, who teaches disabled children at Hiawatha Elementary School in Minneapolis and has been bitten, punched and pushed by students. “They just can’t do it.”
More than 800 of the state’s 8,900 licensed special education teachers quit during the most recent school year the state tracked. Meanwhile, it granted just 417 new licenses for special ed teachers, the fewest in at least five years.
The shortage is a national problem, but it is an especially urgent issue in Minnesota, which has one of the fastest-growing special education populations in the country.
Some teachers say paperwork, which goes beyond federal requirements and has increased as teachers get more students with more difficulties, forces them to work 70-hour week.
Advocates for disabled students say paperwork may be monotonous, but it is necessary.
“No paperwork means no accountability,” said Virginia Richardson, parent liaison for PACER, a national advocate for disabled students based in the Twin Cities.