The Crisis in Special Education

I will never forget the children’s book Seven Little Rabbits (“seven little rabbits walking down the road to call on old friend toad …”). It was the book I memorized in second grade so that I could pretend I could read. I would “read” it to my mother at night. Like mothers everywhere, she was not fooled.

October is National Dyslexia Awareness Month. During this month I would like to thank the many educators who worked me with tirelessly to make sure that I learned to read and navigated the other challenges that being a dyslexic student brought.

In particular, I would like to thank Mrs. Whitters, who worked with me for so many years, not just on reading, but on being a decent person, about not sweating the small stuff, about how having fun is as important as academic success. Years later, Mrs. Whitters, who taught me so much, would attend my wedding, where I married Jeff Becker (serendipitously Seven Little Rabbits was written by John Becker, I really loved that book).

Educators – particularly those what move us greatly – are transformative. Yet today, Massachusetts is seeing a decline in those entering the education workforce, particularly in the special education fields.

In part the issue is a startling lack of funding. We must support the front-line teachers and care givers whose work is critical to our children, friends, and family. The already-strained support for people with visible and invisible disabilities was broken outright under the COVID-19 pandemic. These critical jobs caring for other people can’t be outsourced overseas or automated by technology.

Careers that work with students with special needs are in increasingly high demand as post-pandemic students require more support than ever, including school counselors, speech-language pathologists, social workers, special education teachers, and sign language interpreters, to name a few. At the same time, we know employees are looking for mission-driven work to make the world a better place. But they must earn enough to pay their bills. We must provide a competitive salary for those entering this field, and value the often-hidden work that they perform.

Massachusetts has received $4.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. Please join me in asking legislators to use a portion of this funding to develop and build a special education workforce to work with the students of today, and to support those who work in special education with adequate wages. We cannot afford not to.

As we celebrate National Dyslexic Awareness month this year, let us also celebrate essential special education workers. Please consider donating to your local approved special education school and join me in asking Massachusetts to increase wages for special education employees, and to build a special education workforce for today and tomorrow. We must match the value we put on these workers with respectable financial incentive, otherwise we won’t have enough pivot changemakers like Mrs. Whitters working to transform kids like me.

Elizabeth Dello Russo Becker is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts