Department of Education warns states not to waive requirements for special education teachers


With the widespread shortage of special education teachers, the US Department of Education is reminding states that relaxing standards is not an option. (Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock)

Federal officials are telling states not to lower teacher qualification expectations, even as schools struggle to fill special education positions.

States cannot use temporary or emergency statutes to lower the standards that teachers working with children with disabilities must meet, according to new guidelines from the US Department of Education.

In a four-page memo sent to state directors of special education this month, Department of Education officials said they had seen media reports and heard from states and advocates for policies and procedures that may not comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

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While the guidelines recognize that states are facing challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated the shortage of special educators, that’s no reason to lower the bar, officials said.

IDEA requires special education teachers and related service providers to be “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained,” according to the correspondence.

“Special education teachers in public schools are not eligible for a waiver of special education certification or licensure requirements on an emergency, temporary, or interim basis; and must hold at least a bachelor’s degree,” reads the letter from Valerie C. Williams, director of the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

The rules apply to special education teachers in public elementary, middle and high schools.

There are a few exceptions. Charter school teachers are subject to slightly different rules, the memo notes. And, in some cases, people who have not obtained state certification as a special education teacher may qualify to teach children with disabilities in public schools if they meet certain requirements and are part of a program offering an alternative route to certification in special education.

Related services personnel must also meet any applicable state licensing or certification requirements for their discipline, the guidelines state, and those standards cannot be waived on an “emergency, temporary, or provisional basis.”

“Paraprofessionals and assistants who are properly trained and supervised, in accordance with law, regulation, or written state policy, may be used to help provide special education and related services to children with disabilities,” wrote Williams.

The memo comes as special educators remain in short supply across the country. Federal data released late last month indicates that 53% of public schools reported feeling understaffed at the start of the 2022-23 school year. Among these schools, special education teachers were the most understaffed positions.

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