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The EC teacher shortage in North Carolina: Solutions from EdNC’s reporting

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Editor’s Note: EdNC’s Chantal Brown, as part of the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship, is conducting research on the educator workforce in North Carolina, with a specific lens on the recruitment, retention, and professional development of teachers working with students in special education.

In part one of this series, Brown reported on the state of the teaching profession in North Carolina, including teacher turnover and vacancies as well as a new dashboard providing access to the data.

In part two of this series, Brown analyzed and mapped the data on exceptional children (EC) teacher vacancies across all 115 districts in North Carolina. At the state level, she found that in 2022-23, there were 549 K-5 EC vacancies, 325 middle school EC vacancies, and 329 high school EC vacancies, and she found that there were 303 more openings for EC teachers in 2022-23 academic year than the previous year.

In part three of this series, Brown set out to determine how resources aid or impede the recruitment, retention, and professional development of EC teachers by surveying EC teachers across the state. The EC teacher pipeline and corps, she found, are stressed.

In this article, the conclusion of the series, Brown uses a solutions journalism approach to identify how the state, superintendents, EC directors, and principals can invest in a healthier EC teacher pipeline and corps.

In commencement programs across North Carolina in 2022, 43,291 bachelor’s degrees were awarded by the UNC System, a key supplier of teachers for districts across our state. Only five out of 100 of graduates studied education, and less than 9% of those who did had majors specific to special education. 

Some of them joined the ranks of the 10,104 beginning teachers for the 2022-23 school year. Based on survey statements from teachers who serve Exceptional Children (EC) students, many were unprepared for day one, much less the day to day.

“I’m currently supervising new EC teachers who are continuing their education to become highly qualified. They are receiving hands-on training while completing course work outside of school,” Cindy Dotson, an EC department educator, said. “Most are serving students who display severe behaviors. None were prepared for the paperwork. Students with developmental delays and mental health disabilities have increased since COVID.”

Since the needs of students served by EC departments have increased post-pandemic, our reporting on the EC teacher workforce identifies ways to bolster the pipeline and corps at the state, district, and school level.

The students EC teachers serve

There are 186,869 students being served by EC programs, with learning differences in 16 different categories, according to data from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

The stress on the EC teacher pipeline and corps is compounded by the needs of students post-pandemic.

“We have a shortage of EC Teachers in the district. We also have self contained classrooms that no longer fit the typical student teacher ratio. The students that are now entering have intense needs similar to severe and profound students which require more one-on-one support,” one educator said in EdNC’s survey.

Source: N.C. Statistical Profile. Graphic: Lanie Sorrow

Understanding teacher match in EC identification

A North Carolina-based study published in the American Educational Research Journal in June 2024 finds, “Black students matched to Black teachers are less likely to be identified for special education. The results are strongest for Black boys, particularly those who are also economically disadvantaged and are strongest for disabilities with more discretion in identification.”

According to the study, economically disadvantaged Black boys who had not been previously identified with disabilities and were matched to Black teachers had a roughly two percentage-point reduction in being identified with disabilities, compared to their peers matched to non-Black teachers.

“Additionally, it is important to note that even if teachers commonly make initial referrals for discretionary educational services, they are not the only actors involved,” the study said. 

A multi-person, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team consists of at least the student’s regular classroom teacher, one special education specialist, and one district representative — as well as the student’s parents or guardians — to determine whether each student qualifies for special education services, according to DPI’s website

“Future work should look at how the identities of some of these other actors, such as special education coordinators, play into student identification for disabilities,” the study said. 

The EC teacher pipeline and corps

The condition of the EC teacher pipeline and corps affects all districts in North Carolina. Based on data from DPI and from EdNC ‘s survey, recruiting and retaining teachers to serve students with learning differences has been challenging. 

“Finding teachers who are licensed in the area of Exceptional Children also continues to be a challenge for the state’s LEAs,” says DPI’s most recent State of the Teaching Profession Report.

Based on vacancies in North Carolina on the 40th day of the 2022-23 school year, almost one in five openings were for EC positions. In seven districts, these roles made up at least half of their vacancies, according to DPI’s dashboard. 

On average, EC vacancies were 55% higher during the 2022-23 school year than 2022-21, per an analysis by EdNC. Over a three-year span, there were twice as many openings in 2022-23 as in 2020-21. 

About 75% of teachers surveyed believe that the pipeline for special education is stressed, according to EdNC survey results.

So what can be done to improve the health of the EC teacher pipeline and corps? Read below for a look at possible solutions at the state, district, and school levels.

Possible solutions at the state level


According to EC educators, more resources are needed to support EC departments statewide. According to one educator who responded to EdNC’s survey, the solution is to “seek to provide excellent working conditions through supportive administrators and competitive pay.”

Approximately 32% of teachers surveyed mentioned factors related to school and district funding.

The 2023 state budget directed DPI to study and create a weighted funding model for EC students. The model should fund children “on the basis of the reported cost of services provided,” and would eliminate the current 13% cap of total Average Daily Membership (ADM).

According to an April DPI presentation, a weighted model would “generate varied funding based on the weights applied to the service level categories rather than a fixed level per student.” It would also “generate funding and a distribution of that funding to more closely align with the students and their service delivery needs.”

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal for the 2024 short session also eliminated the 13% funding cap for EC students to “provide additional teachers and instructional support, instructional supplies and materials, and staff development.” His proposal also allocated half a million dollars for statewide professional development for all teachers and recommended that five million dollars went toward “high-quality teacher preparation residency programs in high-need rural and urban districts,” to be distributed by the State Board of Education.

House Bill 1035, Support Students With Disabilities Act, was filed with bipartisan support in May 2024.

Beginning with the 2024-25 fiscal year, the bill would direct DPI to establish a grant program for “local school administrative units to apply for funds from the Special State Reserve Fund (SSRF) for children with disabilities for the purpose of covering the extraordinary costs of certain students with disabilities.”

To be eligible for a grant, the bill says that a district must demonstrate that “the total cost of the services equals or exceeds four times the State average per pupil expenditure for children with disabilities in the prior fiscal year.”

The bill would allocate $1 million in recurring funds for the grant program.


To better understand the EC teacher corps by district and the stress on the pipeline from the number of vacancies, North Carolina’s DPI data dashboard needs to include the total number of EC teachers by district.

The special education module for ECATS

ECATS stands for Every Child Accountability & Tracking System.

EdNC’s survey identified that many EC teachers perceive the special education module for ECATS to be a pain point.

When leaving comments about ECATS, respondents used words like “ridiculous” and “demeaning.” Survey respondents said that ECATS impacts the quality of life for EC teachers, leading to anger and frustration. Their experience of the system, they said, make it less likely they would include the details sought.

Additional training and support by DPI is warranted. EdNC will be doing additional research on whether access to different functionality in ECATS is part of the challenge.

Professional development

EdNC’s survey revealed that professional development for EC teachers, especially beginning EC teachers, varies widely across the 115 districts in North Carolina.

It would be helpful to schools and districts for DPI to distribute best practices in professional development for beginning and veteran EC teachers.

At the district level

EC departments in districts need to have strategies for the recruitment, retention, and professional development of beginning and veteran EC teachers.

For superintendents and EC directors, it is important to know that in districts where the pipeline is perceived to be healthy, leadership is supportive, and educators feel like they are part of a team.

EdNC’s survey found that 43% of teachers who responded did not believe or were unaware of a direct plan to retain teachers in their district. Communication matters.

EdNC’s survey identified other strategies districts are using to invest in the EC pipeline, including:

  • Paying 10 months plus one week to compensate for the extra paperwork.
  • Providing EC compliance specialists who complete all initial student eligibility processes and all student reevaluations to decrease the demands of EC paperwork.
  • Providing mental health days.
  • District leaders attending difficult meetings to reduce the stresses or fears of a contentious outcome.

Going forward, based on the new research, districts will also need a process to assess the role of teacher match in the identification of students for EC programs.

At the school level

For principals, here are the interventions educators in our survey indicated made a difference in retention:

  • Reduced caseloads.
  • More time during the school day for paperwork.
  • More time during the school day for meetings.
  • Lower teacher-to-student ratios to allow for more individualization.
  • Better training on how to manage behavior.
  • More resources to support beginning teachers, leading to lower turnover and more stability in the workforce.
  • Better training for teachers who enter through alternate pathways.
  • More support for veteran EC teachers to prevent burnout.
  • More support from counselors to address growing mental health needs of EC students.
  • Assistance with finding substitute teachers when attending professional development.

The dedication of the EC teacher workforce

Educators left 680 comments in EdNC’s survey, and in comment after comment, the dedication of the EC teacher workforce is clear.

“EC staff are truly a community of dedicated personnel whose primary goal is to help children grow. They all pour their heart and soul into the students.”

— Survey response

While more resources are needed to support the recruitment, retention, and professional development of EC teachers statewide, many educators noted their ongoing commitment to serving this critical student population.

Our EC team is talented and committed!

Our county has a hard-working EC workforce who collaborate well together to do whatever we can to help our students. 

We are a caring bunch of professionals that want students to learn.

Excerpt from EdNC survey responses

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.