Taking Care of the Major Challenges Facing Special Education

This article is part of a series highlighting the presentations given at the 2021 eLumaNation Summit, held virtually September 30 – October 1, 2021

Last week, at the 2021 eLumaNation Summit, we were excited to have Phyllis Wolfram, Executive Director for the Council for Administrators of Special Education (CASE), join us as a moderator and presenter.

Phyllis Wolfram has worked in public education for 37 years, with 29 years of administrative experience in the field of special education administration. She has been a local special education director in three different districts ranging in size from a small rural district to the largest urban district in the state of Missouri. 

From 2018 to 2020, Phyllis served as the President of CASE, and has served as Executive Director from 2020 to the present.

She also served as the chair of the CASE Policy & Legislation Committee, CASE Ad Hoc Committee on IDEA Reauthorization, as a member of the CASE Task Force; Design for the Future, and also a member of the Board of Directors for the Council for Exceptional Children and the CEC IDEA Reauthorization Workgroup.

With her vast range of experience, it was exciting to hear her discuss the biggest and most critical issues facing the leaders in special education and how to improve outcomes for students.

In her presentation Phyllis addressed 4 challenges educators are facing:

1. Increase in referrals, increase in initial evaluations, and increase in incidence rates

2. COVID & Compliance

3. Staff Shortage “5 Alarm Fire”

4. Advocacy

1. Challenges Facing Leaders in Special Education: Increase in referrals, increase in initial evaluations, and increase in incidence rates

What happens to a student’s education when they don’t have school regularly over a year, students who are quarantined, students who don’t have connectivity, students who are stuck in limbo as COVID outbreaks as school go back to being in person?

An increase in referrals, increase in initial evaluations, and an increase in incidence rates.

As a result, there is  disruption in student  instructional time. Phyllis shared that directors across the nation are reporting an increase in referrals.

The last normal school year:

For students in: Was:
Grade 7 Grade 4
Grade 6 Grade 3
Grade 5 Grade 2
Grade 4 Grade 1
Grade 3 Kindergarten
Grade 2 NEVER
Grade 1 NEVER
Kindergarten NEVER

To put this into perspective, the last normal year of school for third graders was Kindergarten – their first year of school. Now take a moment and think about how many crucial milestones are developed between Kindergarten and 3rd grade. From there, consider the fact that students in Grades K, 1, and 2 have never had a traditional school year. 

One critical issue we’re encountering now as we start to receive these students that are referred, it’s important to reflect and consider “are we referring because we suspect a disability, or are we referring because of lack of instruction?”.

2. Challenges Facing Leaders in Special Education: COVID & Compliance

Since early last year COVID has been an issue for education, with specific challenges for special education due to compliance requirements. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education was charged by Congress to provide a list of waivers that may be needed in special education across the country.

In response, CASE submitted reasonable flexibilities with specific timelines, asking for very specific relief and evaluation, and IEP timelines, but very few were granted. One of the reasons the flexibilities were so important was because school districts are required to conduct annual reviews every year.

One of the biggest things that are addressed in an annual review is “did you meet all of those compliance requirements?” And after these past couple of school years, when the school districts went through their reviews, they were found to not be in compliance.

This was expected due to schools being closed and FAPE looking different during the COVID impact, and during hybrid and virtual instruction.

Now, moving forward, school districts are faced with writing corrective action plans addressing the COVID impact, which is causing more unnecessary paperwork.

When this issue was brought up with the office of special education programs, they said OSEP memo 09-02 was written in 2008 addressing corrective action plans. In dissecting this memo 3 key ideas are brought to light. 

Districts may be found out of compliance, but should they really be writing corrective action plans? Not necessarily. Phyllis broke down these 3 points saying:

Was it extensive or found in only a small percentage of files?

  1. “One of the things that we know is re-evaluations don’t take place every year for all students. So that could have been a small percentage of files that were found out of compliance. It wasn’t that the school didn’t want to, they were limited in their ability. So was it really compliance? I think those are questions that we have to ask.”

Did it result in a denial of a basic right to the students?

  1. “We don’t think it did. Why? During the pandemic Free and Appropriate Public Education looked different. Districts  were told to communicate with parents, talk with parents, and decide what we were going to work on. Did we change an IEP? A lot of school districts were required to totally change students’ IEPs. 

So did we really deny rights? I don’t think so.. You can’t say something that’s, “COVID denied rights”. But I think you have to think logically through that process.”

Does it represent an isolated incident or a long standing failure?

  1. “It’s not long standing. It may be long standing in time because we’ve been dealing with COVID for so long. But when you think about the years and years prior to that, some of these school districts have not been out of compliance.”

With this memo in mind, school districts now have a jumping-off point to open up a conversation about why they don’t need to engage in so much corrective action. 

3. Challenges Facing Leaders in Special Education:  Staff Shortage “5 Alarm Fire”

We all know that the shortage of special education staff has been climbing for years. However, some of these statistics make you realize just how dire the situation currently is and is becoming. Phyllis refers to this as the “5 Alarm Fire”.

  • 48 states and DC report a shortage of special education teachers.”
  • “42 states report a shortage of early intervention providers, paraprofessionals, and related services providers, such as school psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists and school counselors.”
  • Data from the Department of Education indicates that as of the 2018/19 school year at least 25,243 special education teacher positions were filled by individuals who were not fully qualified for those positions.  Since the COVID pandemic, the shortages have grown.”

“Between 2015 and 2019 the number of eligible students increased by 462,000 to 7.7 million. At the current rate of increase, the number of eligible students could easily exceed 8 million in 2022.”

Due to these increasing shortages, she suggested the need of strengthening and supporting the educator workforce. Some of the methods she suggested were:

  • Alternative Certification/Teacher Residency/Mentoring and Induction
  • Preparation Program Innovation
  • Grow Your Own
  • Workforce Diversity/cultural Awareness and Pedagogy/Teacher Residency
  • Working Conditions/Cultures
  • Elevating the Profession/Recruiting Licensed Teachers
  • Inclusive Leadership
  • Return on Investment/ Sustainable Systems and Support

4. Challenges Facing Leaders in Special Education: Advocacy

There is only so much we can do on our own. Which is why it’s important we come together and advocate. Through CASE’s advocacy center you can send messages to your legislators based on these pressing topics.

  • Include Personnel Prep Money in the Reconciliation Package
  • Tell Congress to Prioritize Mental Health for Students

  • Tell Congress to Address the Shortage of Educators
  • Tell Congress to Increase Funding for IDEA

You can also sign up for alerts by texting CASEACTS to 50457.

In a moving conclusion, Phyllis shared this powerful message from authors Dan Zadra and Kobi Yamada.


I want you to believe. 

I want you to believe in fresh starts and new beginnings. 

I want you to believe that opportunity is everywhere and all around you. 

I want you to believe that you are here for a reason.

Believe that nothing is too good to be true.

Believe that you must Take your chance.

Believe when others might not

Believe that passion persuades. 

Believe in doing great work.

Believe that some boundaries are meant to be crossed. 

Believe that there is always, always, always a way. 

Believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel. 

Believe that you might be that light for someone else.

Believe in the miracle of the second chance.

Believe that we are better together, 

Believe you can make a difference. 

Believe that the best is yet to be. 

And last of all, believe in yourself.

Additional Resources

Learn more about CASE

Help make a difference in legislation through CASE’s Action Center.

Connect with Phyllis on LinkedIn

Follow Phyllis on Twitter: @PhyllisWolfram


About eLuma

eLuma connects students and districts with clinicians that care, and can help you face any special education challenges head on. From mental health to speech therapy to occupational therapy, and more. Get a free needs analysis for your K-12 school district.

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Aerial Lee

Aerial Lee

Aerial Lee is a Digital Marketing Specialist at eLuma Online Therapy. She earned a Bachelor's degree in Digital Marketing from Utah Valley University. She loves working at eLuma and is passionate about its mission in changing lives for the better.