A newly appointed state task force is tackling a problem that has plagued Minnesota's special education teachers for years — too many students, too much paperwork, and inconsistent state rules and laws.
The panel of special education directors, parents and disability advocates convened Tuesday to begin looking at how many special education students should be assigned to teachers. While there are limits on how many students with moderate to severe disabilities can be assigned to a teacher, none exists for students who spend most of their time in a general education classroom.
And too many students often means too much paperwork, some task force members said. "Most of the teachers I know don't want to tear their hair out because of the kids," said Todd Travis, director of the Midwest Special Education Cooperative in Morris, Minn. "It's the paperwork."
The push to limit teachers' caseloads comes when Minnesota's special education population is increasing but teachers for them are too few. Complicating matters further, special education hasn't received full state and federal funding for decades, prompting many schools to struggle to pay to educate students with disabilities.
It was unclear Tuesday just how much time the task force would spend looking at paperwork problems confronting special education teachers. In fact, the group had questions about how to even define things like paperwork and caseload. Nevertheless, many of the task force members who worked in special education programs said paperwork was one of the major obstacles.
Paperwork is frequently cited by special education teachers who have left the profession. And that's a significant number of teachers.
More than 800 of the state's 8,900 licensed special education teachers quit during the most recent school year the state tracked. Meanwhile, it granted just 417 new licenses for special ed teachers, the fewest in at least five years.
The Minnesota Department of Education has introduced several initiatives aimed at reducing special education paperwork. Officials admit, however, that most of those efforts haven't trickled down to the average classroom teacher. Some teachers say paperwork forces them to work 70-hour weeks.
Advocates for disabled students have argued that while paperwork may be monotonous, it is necessary for accountability.
Past attempts to address workload haven't gone far. In 2003, a task force was convened, but its recommendations weren't adopted by legislators.
Education Department staff members on Tuesday presented the task force with data that showed the average, statewide student-to-teacher ratio in special education was 14.3 for 2011-12, just a fraction more than five years ago.
Over the past five years, the state's special education population has increased by 10 percent, while other states' populations have decreased.
The task force also will review inconsistencies in state special education rules and laws. It is expected to issue a report to legislators by mid-February.