OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The teacher shortage is nothing new, it has affected classrooms across the nation for years, but now Oklahoma school districts are seeing more of a hit to their special education departments as new applicants have stopped rolling in.

Yukon Public Schools serves about 1,750 students who have special needs.

The district has 228 staff members who take care of those students. That number may seem like a lot, but Yukon Public Schools Executive Director of Special Services, Amy Beams told KFOR the district needs several more to be fully staffed.

“We currently have 6 vacancies not including paraeducators. All the openings that are currently posted have been open for a while with very limited, if any applicants,” stated Beams. “We are having to cover our vacancies with outside contract providers, resulting in a significant amount of money that must be allocated to the high contractor fees. We have had to resort to contracted tele-providers in some cases to meet service delivery requirements.”

Other Oklahoma school districts struggling to fill spots include:

  • Oklahoma City Public Schools has 26 vacant positions in special services.
  • Putnam City Public Schools has 14 vacant positions in special services.
  • Edmond Public Schools has 12 vacant positions in special services.
  • Mustang Public Schools has five vacant positions in special services.
  • Stillwater Public Schools has four vacant positions in special services.

Most of the vacancies have been open since the start of the 2023-2024 school year, according to the school districts who responded to News 4’s inquiry.

Stillwater Public Schools Communications Coordinator, Barry Fuxa told KFOR the district has yet to fill a special services speech position since July 2022.

“We do also have a contract with OSU to provide speech therapy. It’s not uncommon for some of our SPED positions to remain open for about a year,” added Fuxa. “Our SPED Executive Director says that she’s never seen as much turnover in these positions.

Beams said being a special education educator is hard work and she believes that may be part of the reason why there’s a lack in qualified people applying.

“It can be physically taxing. It’s certainly mentally taxing. There’s a lot that goes into being a special educator, and I think people are just tired and oftentimes don’t feel like their work is necessarily always appreciated or recognized for the value that it brings to our students,” said Beams.

Beams has been the Executive Director of Special Services for Yukon Public Schools since 2018. She said in her time with the district, she has only seen the teacher shortage get worse.

“We always had a plethora of applicants we could kind of choose from and find the best ones. Over the last, I would say three to four years, especially the last two, we have positions that are posted and they’ll stay posted for months with not a single applicant,” she added. “If people knew that our most precious, most critical young students who have really complex needs have no one there for them, perhaps that’s what it might take to get the word out that we have to do something.”

Mustang Public Schools Executive Director of Human Resources, Chris Tobler echoed the same.

The Mustang school district serves 13,500 students, with 14.9% being students with special needs, which is about 2,000 kids.

“It’s one of the hardest jobs in public education, making sure the needs of special education students are met. It takes a special person. It takes extra training, and it’s just really a hard job. Not a lot of people right now want to do that,” said Tobler.

Tobler said the district currently has 75-100 special education teachers with about 1,000 additional certified staff.

“Other special education staff and teachers have to pick up that slack. We certainly want to stay within our legal realm in terms of laws regarding special education. But yes, classrooms are larger than we would want them to be, and that’s just an unfortunate byproduct of a need for more special education teachers,” explained Tobler.

He said more of the impact is on educators rather than students because despite the crisis, the Mustang school district strives to meet the needs of every student.

News 4 asked if he sees an end to the special education teacher shortage on the horizon. He’s not hopeful.

“I’m very concerned. So is our Superintendent Charles Bradley and our school board. They understand the dire situation we are in,” stated Tober.

Oklahoma State University had nine students receive special education degrees in 2022.

Previously, OSU only had four special education-based graduates in 2020 and 2021.

“Our enrollment has seen an increase recently and the special education minor is strong. We currently have 28 students at the master’s degree level (one will graduate in December), 6 enrolled in our graduate certificate option, and 4 pursuing a PhD. We have 39 pursuing the minor in special education,” said Christy Lang who works in OSU’s College of Education and Human Sciences. “OSU has started offering the Boot Camp – 100% online. We are hoping this helps more districts, especially those that are in rural areas, in supporting alternative certification for special educators.”

At the University of Oklahoma, the school saw 26 graduates who specialized in special education in 2022. That number remained the same in the spring of 2023.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education rolled out an incentive program in April to attract more teachers back to the classroom.

If a person were to sign a 5-year contract and has at least five years of experience teaching special education, they would be eligible for a $50,000 sign-on bonus.

OSDE says 800 people applied to the program. Only 533 were deemed eligible. Of those numbers, 181 are in special education.

News 4 reached out to 10 school districts on Friday to see if OSDE’s incentive program impacted their applicant numbers.

“Two applicants were hired and qualified for the bonus,” said Oklahoma City Public Schools Executive Director of Communications, Courtney Scott.

As for Putnam City Public Schools, Yukon Public Schools, Mustang Public Schools, and Stillwater Public Schools, they reportedly have not seen an increase in special education applicants linked to OSDE’s incentive program.

“I think any type of incentive that we can provide teachers, if it’s monetary, whatever it is, that’s great. That’s what we need to do. But the bottom line is we just don’t have people to provide those incentives to at this point,” said Beams. “It doesn’t matter how much you incentivize if there are no applicants.”

Tober said he was excited to see OSDE roll out the incentive program, but he thinks the department needs to continue researching ways to keep teachers in Oklahoma.

“I think our issues may run a little deeper than that. I think it’s going to take years to rebound from the crisis of a teacher shortage. This is not just an Oklahoma problem. This is nationwide. So it’s very concerning. I think it’s important that our community and our stakeholders really see that big picture.”

Tober suggests not only increasing pay, but also benefits and ensuring educators feel respected and valued.

“I think we can always do better top to bottom, to take care of our teachers. This is the field that I work in, so I’m obviously passionate about helping kids and taking care of teachers. I think education should always be the top priority. That’s my opinion because the kids, this will sound cliche, but kids are our future and we have to make sure they have what they need to be successful when they become adults and contribute to society,” explained Tober. “You cannot convince me otherwise that education shouldn’t be a number one priority in this state.”

News 4 reached out to the State Department of Education about how many special education vacancies there are across the state and if State Superintendent Ryan Walters has any further plan to try to minimize the teacher shortage crisis.

OSDE Director of Communications, Dan Isett was given a deadline and responded nearly two hours late.

“As you correctly noted on X (Twitter), there are 181 special education teachers eligible for the teacher signing bonus program, and we are very pleased with how that program is coming along. As a former special education instructor himself, Supt. Walters is committed to doing everything possible to ensure those needs are met,” stated Isett.