When it comes to problems in Connecticut’s special education system, teachers, parents, advocates and administrators seem to agree on one key issue: Staff shortages.
“We can’t find paraprofessionals. We can’t find teachers. We can’t find related services personnel,” said Kathy Gabrielson, the director of pupil services for Stratford Public Schools.
“Free ice cream on half-day Wednesdays [isn’t] cutting it anymore,” added Karen Helene, the director of Benhaven School in Wallingford, which specializes in students with autism.
At a Tuesday meeting of a state task force to study special education in Connecticut, multiple members brought up the need to get more staff members in the classrooms, and raised theories around the reasons why special education teachers had left or were threatening to retire.
“Is it because pay is too low? Is it because working in special education is a dangerous job? Is this because special education staff are disrespected? Is it because special education staff members are inadequately trained to do the jobs for which they are hired?” asked Andy Feinstein, a special education attorney and chair of the task force.
The task force, which was created under a law passed in 2021, is charged with making recommendations around how special needs students are identified, the services provided by school districts and how the state funds special education.
Stephanie Wanzer, secretary of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, said the state now has a teacher residency program specifically focused on special education. She added that the state needed to take responsibilities off the shoulders of teachers.
Wanzer said the teachers were seeing children come into the districts at a young age with behavioral problems, some of them undiagnosed.
“Students are coming in here without the minor things. Eating. Sleeping. I have to do that every day,” she said. “If I can’t get a kid who’s tired and hungry to focus, they’re not going to learn.”
Jennifer Lussier, a representative of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, said staffing shortages meant that more students were being placed in more restrictive environments outside the district, because the schools did not have the personnel to work with them. She also said her organization had been getting calls about students placed in restraints or in seclusion, and that there was less assurance that districts were actually providing students with the education required in their Individual Education Plans
Task force members made several suggestions about how to address the staffing shortages, including more training and support and better pay. Wanzer noted that some special education teachers never had the opportunity to student-teach because of the pandemic.
Heather Tartaglia, the chief program officer for the Capital Region Education Council, asked whether it would be possible to give more support to people coming in to teach with an emergency permit — people who generally have less training than traditional teachers.
In talking with the head of the special education program at Central Connecticut State University, Feinstein said that five years ago, one person in her class was teaching on an emergency permit. This year, 39 of her 40 students are teaching on emergency permits.
Gabrielson also noted the need for higher pay for paraprofessionals, who she claimed could make as much money working at CVS or Walmart without the level of demands that school districts place on them.
“We are seeing a level of exhaustion that we have never experienced before in this profession,” Gabrielson said.
The success of general education
Special education is an unpredictable cost for local school districts.
A single student moving in or out of a town could mean a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars that the school district will need to pay. Currently, the state will reimburse districts for a percentage of special education costs that go beyond 4.5 times the amount it would cost to educate a general education student in the state.
The percentage of students in the state with disabilities has steadily increased, moving from 14.5 percent in 2018-19 to 17.1 percent last year, according to state data.
Co-chair Fran Rabinowitz, who is the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Superintendents, questioned why this number was increasing. She also pointed out that certain groups were disproportionately represented — Black students, she said, were 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with an emotional disability than White students.
Other members of the task force said the rising special education numbers were an indication of something else — a lack of support in general education classrooms.
“A very wise director colleague of mine once said to me that special education is a barometer of general education,” Gabrielson said. “If general education is succeeding, special education numbers should be decreasing.”
She noted that districts were cutting budgets across the state, and that some districts were asking for budget increases of 10 percent or more. Since state and federal laws make it difficult to decrease funding to special education, budget cuts often affect the traditional classrooms.
“Interventionists get cut. Coaches get cut. Resources get cut. We need to look at … the inequity of that,” Gabrielson said.
Rabinowitz said that when she worked as the superintendent in Bridgeport, the lack of interventionists in the classrooms meant that students were being sent to special education when, with additional help, they might have been able to stay in a traditional classroom.
“The teachers referred many, many children to special ed because there wasn’t anything else to intervene with them,” she said.
Feinstein also highlighted the inequity across districts when it comes to special education.
“In the wealthy suburbs, special education can mean remedial assistance and targeted work to achieve measurable goals. In other districts, special education can mean a self-contained room in which students are warehoused with no expectations of academic success or learning how to function in society,” he said.
He noted that wealthier parents were able to afford attorneys and other experts that help them fight for services for their children — an option that poorer families don’t have.
“This is wrong. Quality special education should not be just for the rich,” he said.
This story has been updated to clarify comments by Jennifer Lussier and to correct the spelling of her name