When Mary Tackitt started working as a teaching assistant for special education students, it seemed like a good opportunity. She loved the time with the children – like the little boy who held her hand and patted it on the desk to keep time with the music. But working with severely disabled students was difficult. She took them to the bathroom and changed the diapers. And she was hurt on occasion by those who struggled to regulate their emotions.
Tackitt, who worked for Indianapolis Public Schools, earned just over $15 an hour.
“The more I had to be bitten by kids and the more I had to take them to the bathroom and dispose of feces, the more I kind of realized that it wasn’t enough,” Tackitt said.
She resigned this spring, after less than a year in office.
Educational assistants, or paraprofessionals, play a crucial role in the education of students with disabilities. As non-state licensed personnel, they are often overlooked in debates and policy solutions regarding teacher shortages. These assistants are the backbone of many classrooms, helping students with behavior and schoolwork, and caring for children with significant medical needs.
But at a time when state tests show students with disabilities need help recovering from studies they missed during the pandemic, Indiana school administrators are struggling to retain and hire special education assistants.
It’s a national problem that some school leaders say has worsened during the pandemic and because of the booming job market.
“I think we’re at an all-time high,” said Laurie VanderPloeg, former director of the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs. “It’s definitely a crisis.”
Federal data on paraprofessional staffing levels is a few years out of date, so it’s hard to confirm whether the pandemic has made the chronic problem worse, VanderPloeg said. Many assistants, however, left the field because their hours were reduced or they were furloughed when schools were closed or away. Then the competition for workers increased.
“So we’re competing with a McDonald’s or you know, even some of the local stores that pay up to $13 or $15 an hour,” she said.
VanderPloeg is now Associate Executive Director for Professional Affairs of the Council for Exceptional Children, an advocacy organization for education professionals that offers memberships and online training for special education assistants.
A chronic problem with limited data
There is no reliable source of statewide data on the number of vacant special education assistant positions in Indiana. But it’s probably hundreds. Fort Wayne Community Schools has approximately 110 vacancies for Special Education Assistants. In the southwest corner of the state, Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation had nearly 20 openings posted online as of mid-August. In Marion County, Perry Township Schools has about 30 jobs available and Indianapolis Public Schools has about 40.
The shortage of special education assistants is persistent at IPS, according to district officials. The school system, which currently has about 170 special education paraprofessionals, had slightly more vacancies last year. The district said it has increased salaries for teaching assistants in recent years and paid higher salaries to those who work with high-needs students, as Tackitt did.
When schools don’t have enough teaching aids, it’s a problem for the whole system. Many school districts struggle to hire qualified teachers for students with disabilities. Indiana, like nearly every state, faces a shortage of certified special education teachers. With fewer teachers and teaching assistants, there is more work for existing staff members to manage.
“When we face a shortage of staff, we work very hard to do the best we can with the people we have. And, you know, does that have an impact on what we can do for children? Probably, yes,” said Angie Balsley, chair of the Indiana Board of Special Education Administrators.
This can lead to lawsuits against schools because students with disabilities are entitled to special education services. And that makes the job harder for current special education staff.
“We’re exhausting our professionals,” Balsley said. “It will only perpetuate the problem as people leave due to stress levels and workloads.”
Challenge for schools and teachers
Jessica Ramirez is a seasoned special education teacher at Elkhart Community Schools in northern Indiana. The district has 14 open paraprofessional positions in special education.
Ramirez said those missing assistants “greatly affected” the district’s ability to provide service and instruction to students.
“We have already worked on how to do things differently as teachers, because we have lost our [paraprofessionals]said Ramirez. “Even if there is someone who could be hired, no one wants to do it, for the limited salaries they receive.”
Bluffton High School principal Steve Baker had to hire three special education teacher aides this summer. That’s nearly half of the total number of assistant positions at the rural high school south of Fort Wayne.
To make the job more attractive, the District of Bluffton-Harrison dramatically increased teacher assistant salaries this year to around $15 an hour. Still, Baker had no candidates in the weeks leading up to the start of school on August 10.
So he did some personal recruiting. “I started calling my best substitutes,” he said. Next, Baker approached bus drivers to work as teaching assistants between their morning and afternoon routes.
Baker has filled vacancies as a special education assistant — including with a bus driver who also works as an assistant.
Jeanine Corson, director of human resources for New Albany Floyd County Schools, said she tries to woo applicants by telling them about normal weekday and holiday work hours.
The district of 12,000 students raised the minimum wage to about $14 an hour and increased recruitment. It helped, Corson said. But the school system listed nearly 30 job openings on its website as of mid-August.
“Everyone is competing for the same pool of candidates, and you have to compete with Target, which can raise the prices of what they sell to boost their employees’ salaries,” Corson said. “We can’t do that. »
Indiana paraprofessionals earned an average of $27,000 a year in 2021, according to federal data. Many districts have increased salaries over the past two years. But wages are still low.
VanderPloeg of the Council for Exceptional Children said schools have received a huge influx of money from the federal government to support students during the pandemic. School administrators have expressed concern about the use of this money to raise salaries, as the funding runs out after a few years.
But VanderPloeg said schools facing shortages should spend some of that money to boost salaries and benefits for their special education assistants. Otherwise, students could miss out on needed services and schools could face legal action, VanderPloeg said.
VanderPloeg believes that if schools invest the money well and improve student education, federal lawmakers will have an incentive to keep the funding going.
“I hear many states say, ‘we don’t want to use our money for personnel.’ But that’s your biggest deficit is the staff,” she said. “So spend the money. Start developing a system. And then continue to seek funding for sustainability.
Why Teaching Assistants Leave
While districts say they can’t afford to raise teacher assistant salaries, low pay and benefits mean many assistants can’t afford to stay on the job.
Sari Lawton was a special education assistant at schools in southeast Hamilton, an affluent neighborhood in suburban Indianapolis. After almost seven years on the job, she was earning about $18 an hour.
That’s more than many special education assistants. But because of summer holidays and unpaid school holidays, she had to work as a nanny and tutor.
Lawton’s biggest problem was health insurance. She wasn’t on the district plan because the premiums were too expensive.
Hamilton Southeastern reportedly billed Lawton nearly $425 per pay period for the health plan she thought was best for her and her daughter. This represents approximately $7,190 per year. District teachers pay less than half that cost for the same coverage because of benefits negotiated in their union contract.
Lawton resigned this spring.
She now works for a financial planning company where she earns more money and gets affordable health insurance.
“I felt sad to leave. I really didn’t want to leave, but I didn’t really have a choice in the matter,” Lawton said. “There has to be some kind of way to make things better where you can actually make enough money to survive.”