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Connecticut: 17.1% in SPED; 'We can't find paraprofessionals/teachers'

Apr 11, 2023, CT Examiner: Faced with Continuing Staff Shortages, State Special Ed Task Force Seeks Solutions

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….

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. …

Wanzer said the teachers were seeing children come into the districts at a young age with behavioral problems, some of them undiagnosed. …

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, 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….

“We are seeing a level of exhaustion that we have never experienced before in this profession,” Gabrielson said. …

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. …

“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. …


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