The number of California kids needing special-education programs is nearing 700,000, or 10 percent of total enrollment, and rising. Special-ed students are more expensive to teach because additional aides or specialists are hired.
The state spends about $9 billion on special education. While it credentials 4,000-5,000 special-ed teachers a year, that's not enough to meet the demand.
"We think we are preparing about half the numbers of special education teachers that the state might actually need. And so it's an issue that we really do need to attend to," said Mary Vixie Sandy, executive director, California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
To close the gap, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing issues about 2,500 interim documents or emergency permits to allow some to temporarily teach special-needs students. Another 2,000 or so are mis-assigned in a special-ed setting.
"I spent a lot of time battling the schools," said Ron Mesna, the father of a special-needs child. Mesna is upset there haven't been enough special-ed teachers qualified to deal with his son.
"Not enough. They need more one-on-one, more smaller groups," said Mesna. "Mainstreaming in part of the classroom is great, but they need more, and the teachers have to learn how they learn. Every one of them is different."
In recent years with budget cutbacks, it's been challenging to meet the needs of special-ed students. But the main problem has been attracting people to the job.
Special-ed teachers are not paid more, and have to attain special credentials on top of the ones they need to teach a regular classroom.
The Special Education Local Plan Area offices hope things improve now that Governor Jerry Brown is giving districts more flexibility in how they spend their money.
"Maybe things will loosen up a little bit, and we'll have the ability to look at salaries, provide more stipends, look at some training opportunities, helping them get that authorization," said Judith Holsinger, director of the Special Education Local Plan Area program.
The shortage could actually deepen. Lawmakers might put more requirements on new special-education teachers as recommended by a blue ribbon task force.