Rising numbers of autism, ADHD other diagnoses are helping drive the demand for special education services throughout the nation, putting an unprecedented strain on our nation’s schools to attract and retain special ed teachers. And while this is creating some real challenges for schools to overcome, for aspiring and practicing special education teachers, it simply means better opportunities to lock in a great position with the district of their choosing.
While teachers in just about every subject and grade level are dealing with the challenges of having to pick and move to a new area where they’re lucky enough to land a position, special educators often find themselves with multiple offers to consider.
Federal, State, and Local Incentives for Special Education Teachers
Special education teachers are bound to the same salary schedules as their colleagues in other subjects and specialty areas, largely due to guidelines set forth by state teacher unions.
So, while special education shortages persist throughout the nation, school districts cannot deviate from the set salary schedules as a way to recruit new special education talent. However, the federal government, state education agencies, and local school districts can and often do provide other financial incentives in an effort to attract and retain them.
Teachers working in state teacher shortage areas recognized by the U.S. Department are eligible to receive special benefits from the federal government. For example, the TEACH (Teacher Education Assistants for College and Higher Education) Grant Program provides grants of up to $4,000 per year for students who agree to serve as a teacher in a high-need field that serves students from low-income families. Special education consistently manages to land toward the top of the list of high-need fields:
- Special education
- Bilingual education/English language acquisition
- Foreign language
- Reading specialist
Through the Teacher Forgiveness Program, special education teachers recognized as highly qualified and teaching at either the elementary or secondary level can receive up to $17,500 in loan repayment for their Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Federal Stafford loans if they teach full-time for five consecutive school years in a low-income school or educational service agency.
Many state education agencies also offer statewide financial incentives. For example, the Minnesota Teacher Shortage Loan Repayment Program provides loan repayment assistance of up to $1,000 annually ($5,000 total) for special education teachers serving in districts located in defined teacher shortage areas.
At the local level, it’s common for school districts to offer specific financial incentives to attract teachers and encourage them to take jobs in teacher shortage areas. For example, the Austin Independent School District offers two financial incentives for special education teachers: (1) a $2,000/year special education stipend for special education classroom teachers and eligible support staff; and (2) a $1,500 bonus for newly hired special education classroom teachers.
Salary Trends for Special Education Teachers According to Location and Licensure Level
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), special education teachers earned an average, annual salary of $61,030, as of May 2019. The top 10%—likely those with extensive experience and/or a graduate degree—earned an average of $98,530 that year.
As of May 2019, there were 443,700 special education teachers in the U.S. By 2029, the number of working in preschools around the country will grow by 14,300.
As expected, average salaries for special education teachers don’t vary a whole lot according to grade level:
- Preschool special education teachers: $60,000
- Kindergarten/elementary special education teachers: $60,460
- Middle school special education teachers: $61,440
- High school special education teachers: $61,710
The average salary for special education teachers is also similar to that of general education teachers at the elementary ($59,670), middle ($59,660), and high school levels ($61,660).
The top-paying states for special education teachers, according to grade level, include:
- New York: $89,930
- Oregon: $77,320
- Rhode Island: $72,750
- Connecticut: $70,400
- Montana: $68,960
Kindergarten and Elementary School
- California: $80,370
- Washington D.C.: $78,830
- New York: $77,840
- Oregon: $76,880
- Connecticut: $76,780
- New York: $87,440
- Connecticut: $80,370
- Washington D.C.: $80,080
- Maryland: $78,190
- Alaska: $77,740
- New York: $83,890
- California: $83,000
- Maryland: $80,800
- Oregon: $79,460
- Washington D.C.: $79,010
The Rising Number of Students with IEPs is Driving Demand for Special Education Teachers
Increasing numbers of students in America now qualify for Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) through the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)—that’s an increase of about half a million students since 2007-08. During the 2018-19 school year, 7.1 million students, or about 14 percent of the entire public school population, received services through IDEA. And in some parts of the country, the percentage of special education students is much higher. For example, in New York, more than 19 percent of all students receive special education services under IDEA.
And schools throughout the U.S. simply can’t keep up with demand.
While the lack of special education teachers is a serious and prevalent problem, for those looking to enter or advance in the field, it equates to exceptional professional opportunities and, in many cases, higher salaries, courtesy of federal, state, and local financial incentives designed to get them in the door and keep them there.
As of the 2020-21 school year, 45 states and Washington D.C. reported shortages of special education teachers, with most states reporting shortages in all or most all disability categories. Some states like Alabama and Rhode Island, are just dealing with a shortfall of qualified teachers in early childhood special education classrooms, while states like Washington and Oklahoma are experiencing shortages at all levels and in all exceptionalities.
The 45 states contending with these shortages are:
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
You can learn more about your state’s special education needs by using the U.S. Department of Education’s searchable database of teacher shortage areas.
State-by-State Guide to Special Education Teacher Salaries
The following BLS stats highlight what special educator teachers (at the kindergarten/elementary school level) were earning at the 50th – 90th percentile as of May 2019:
- Alabama: $52,550 – $63,510
- Alaska: $72,860 – $100,670
- Arizona: $45,720 – $62,880
- Arkansas: $49,050 – $63,580
- California: $77,470 – $118,210
- Colorado: $52,610 – $79,180
- Connecticut: $77,990 – $102,690
- Delaware: $57,990 – $80,570
- District of Columbia: $76,660 – $118,620
- Florida: $64,040 – $86,430
- Georgia: $59,920 – $85,680
- Hawaii: $57,580 – $76,900
- Idaho: $46,880 – $75,490
- Illinois: $61,590 – $98,230
- Indiana: $49,550 – $79,490
- Iowa: $55,320 – $81,750
- Kansas: $52,760 – $73,190
- Kentucky: $52,780 – $65,290
- Louisiana: $49,350 – $61,700
- Maine: $51,210 – $73,660
- Maryland: $69,620 – $108,470
- Massachusetts: $72,550 – $110,890
- Michigan: $63,330 – $98,220
- Minnesota: $58,730 – $85,140
- Mississippi: $46,770 – $64,810
- Missouri: $54,260 – $96,630
- Montana: $49,270 – $73,540
- Nebraska: $58,490 – $81,140
- Nevada: $52,970 – $74,570
- New Hampshire: $59,350 – $80,210
- New Jersey: $67,060 – $99,170
- New Mexico: $51,390 – $77,900
- New York: $78,810 – $120,610
- North Carolina: $49,390 – $66,290
- North Dakota: $57,820 – $85,040
- Ohio: $56,670 – $82,100
- Oklahoma: $47,030 – $74,330
- Oregon: $76,330 – $118,160
- Pennsylvania: $64,210 – $94,340
- Rhode Island: $77,930 – $98,890
- South Carolina: $58,470 – $87,670
- South Dakota: $44,300 – $59,480
- Tennessee $52,630 – $72,120
- Texas: $57,390 – $72,710
- Utah: $43,620 – $81,870
- Vermont: $60,690 – $86,110
- Virginia: $64,040 – $102,140
- Washington: $68,150 – $93,220
- West Virginia: $42,820 – $58,480
- Wisconsin: $54,700 – $81,070
- Wyoming: $60,470 – $77,870
Salary and employment data compiled by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2019. Figures represent accumulated data for all employment sectors in which preschool special education teachers work. BLS salary data represents average and median earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries.
Salary and employment data compiled by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2019. Figures represent accumulated data for all employment sectors in which kindergarten and elementary special education teachers work. BLS salary data represents average and median earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries.
Salary and employment data compiled by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2019. Figures represent accumulated data for all employment sectors in which middle school special education teachers work. BLS salary data represents average and median earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries.
Salary and employment data compiled by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2019. Figures represent accumulated data for all employment sectors in which secondary school special education teachers work. BLS salary data represents average and median earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries.
All salary and employment data accessed October 2020.