Disabled Students Needs Aren’t Met Amid Teacher Shortage

Federal officials continue to find the Virginia Department of Education violating various standards in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which ensures students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate education.

Valerie Williams, head of the federal Office of Special Education Programs, addressed various concerns to the department in a February letter. Williams noted that the state does not offer an adequate process for children and families who feel their complaints about not receiving services are being resolved.

The department doesn’t resolve every complaint. Additionally, no policy is in place to ensure that complaints are addressed promptly, according to the letter.

Education advocate and CEO of Voices for Virginia’s Children Rachael Deane is not surprised by these problems. She assisted families in navigating the special education system for many years as an education lawyer. Deane became aware that her third-grade son needed to be assessed for disability services during the beginning of the pandemic. Ultimately, he received services, but the process was challenging even with Deane’s legal background.

When there is a dispute over what services a student requires, Deane says it is tough to navigate the state resolution process, which she says has been a problem for years before the federal government became involved in 2020.

Deane says that the state education department has frequently re-characterized or mischaracterized what issues must be addressed during the complaint resolution process.

In Virginia, the need for teachers in special education has been recognized for the previous 20 years. As a result, school districts have depended on underprepared teachers to cover shortfalls in special education teaching jobs, according to a 2020 JLARC report.

The case is the same in school districts nationwide. Nico, an eleven-year-old from North Carolina, and his classmates started school last year without a teacher. Instead, the licensed special education teacher next door arranged lessons for the six-student class at Holly Grove Elementary School in Wake County, North Carolina. Nico is autistic and has a seizure disorder. The other five children in his class, all of whom have disabilities, are between the ages of eight and eleven.

Low wages also make finding teachers difficult. In Virginia, teachers make about 11% less than the national average. The average salary of a teacher in Virginia last fiscal year was $58,500. However, the national average was $65,300. Nationally, the average teacher makes about $6,800 a year more than they would in Virginia

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law on educating students with disabilities, requires that special education teachers be “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained” and “have the content knowledge and skills to serve children with disabilities.”

The teacher shortage affects all students. It is, however, especially difficult for students who require special education services. Before the 1970s, many public schools prohibited children with disabilities from attending. Since then, the federal and state governments have enacted legislation requiring school districts to accommodate and serve these children.

Disabled students should have access to the resources they need. Disabled students are entitled to a free, appropriate public education in the United States. Yet, schools are frequently ill-equipped to provide services and support. Unfortunately, because support is often inadequate, disabled students frequently fall between the cracks.


Donnelly-DeRoven, Clarissa. “Schools Struggle to Retain Special ED Teachers. Advocates Say Invest More in Them.” North Carolina Health News, North Carolina Health News, 26 Jan. 2023, https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2023/01/26/schools-struggle-to-retain-special-ed-teachers-advocates-say-invest-more-in-them/.

Hirneisen, Madison. “Virginia May Form Work Group to Examine Teacher Pay.” The Center Square, Franklin News Foundation, 13 Feb. 2023, https://www.thecentersquare.com/virginia/virginia-may-form-work-group-to-examine-teacher-pay/article_c69ca274-abea-11ed-9b67-eb67e4e794ec.html.

Pauly, Megan. “Officials Say Virginia Must Improve Disability Services for Students.” VPM, Virginia Foundation for Public Media, 27 Mar. 2023, https://www.vpm.org/news/2023-03-27/virginia-education-department-disability-services.

Will, Madeline. “States Are Desperate for Special Ed. Teachers. but They Can’t Cut Corners to Get Them.” Education Week, Editorial Projects in Education, 26 Oct. 2022, https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/states-are-desperate-for-special-ed-teachers-but-they-cant-cut-corners-to-get-them/2022/10.

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