By Autumn Spredemann
America’s education crisis is approaching another crossroads this year. Between January and July, more than a quarter of a million teachers and support staff called it quits amid heavier workloads and growing class sizes.
Complicating this is the growing number of illegal immigrant and special-needs students entering U.S. classrooms.
The teacher exodus has hit unprecedented numbers since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Educators say they face a seemingly never-ending series of challenges with inadequate pay and no hope on the horizon.
Moreover, some say policymakers outside education have set “unrealistic” standards for America’s dwindling supply of teachers.
Among the commonly cited reasons for leaving the profession are bigger class sizes, increased behavioral challenges, low pay, and a lack of administrative support.
Securing even the most basic classroom essentials, like enough desks for students in classrooms, has become a daily struggle for some.
This is especially prevalent in the student population who require a specialized curriculum.
The total number of children in special education has nearly doubled since the 1970s and accounts for an estimated 7.3 million U.S. students in the K-12 population as of 2022.
At the same time, American schools are scrambling to find qualified teachers to work in this rapidly expanding sector. At the start of the 2023-2024 school year, nearly every state reported excess job openings for special education teachers.
To make matters worse, these positions are staying open longer and have fewer applicants.
Meanwhile, the U.S. education and immigration crises have also crossed paths.
As of 2021, an estimated 29 percent—or 3.2 million students—came from households led by an illegal immigrant.
That number doesn’t reflect those arriving from these homes in 2022 or 2023, during which the United States has witnessed the highest surge of illegal border crossers in years.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) observed a record-breaking 2.76 million encounters with illegal immigrants in fiscal year (FY) 2022, and this year has already surpassed those numbers.
After July’s reported slowdown, U.S. officials noted a 60 percent spike in border encounters during the first half of September.
Thousands of these daily border arrivals are children, an increasing number of which, are landing on America’s doorstep alone. In FY 2022, CBP encountered more than 152,000 unaccompanied minors near the southern border.
And like all U.S. children, they’re entitled to a free public school education.
The 1982 Supreme Court ruling on Plyler v. Doe guarantees public education access to all K–12-aged children, regardless of their immigration status. While this lofty goal may work on paper, there are significant hurdles to putting it into practice.
Some educators say many of these children end up in special education due to language and other learning challenges.
But with an additional 35 percent of surveyed educators planning to quit within the next two years, it begs the question: Who will teach all of these kids?
“Since schools are so limited with supports for kiddos who struggle, most often ESL [English as a Second Language], ELL [English Language Learners], and a disproportional number of low-income and minority students, teachers feel like they have to refer them to special-ed so they can get support,” former teacher and principal, Jennifer Eisenreich, told The Epoch Times.
Ms. Eisenreich recently left her career as a 30-year educator to start Shift Show Communications, which focuses on helping schools and teachers effect positive changes.
She says shuffling immigrant children into special education is a sort of last-ditch effort for some educators to help students with language barriers and other special circumstances get what she called a “watered-down curriculum.”
Since the list of teacher duties is ballooning right alongside the number of students in classrooms, it’s basically a survival tactic.
“With bigger class sizes, teachers must adapt instruction so they can provide remediation and enrichment for every lesson. In one day, that may mean developing three versions of a lesson for six plus subjects.
“With the amount of planning, differentiated instruction, and giving meaningful feedback, on top of the myriad duties they have, teachers are stretched beyond their limits,” Ms. Eisenreich said.
This is reflected in a recent survey that revealed 90 percent of teachers feel career burnout is a serious problem, with roughly half planning to leave the profession earlier than planned.
Further, there are half a million fewer educators now than before the COVID-19 pandemic, and 43 percent of educator job postings in the United States remain unfilled.
Ms. Eisenreich noted the increasing number of special education referrals and placements indicates the general curriculum is out of reach for many students.
She maintains it’s vital to have educational standards, but many of these decisions are being made by policymakers outside education.
In her assessment, this creates an “unrealistic end in mind for all children, leading to early benchmarks that are unattainable.”
When it comes to teacher shortages, special education is one of the worst-hit areas.
One analysis shows nearly 50 percent of special education teachers quit within their first five years.
The umbrella for this department is vast, with 13 disability categories under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This ranges from physical limitations to learning, behavioral, and language challenges.
In that regard, it’s easy to see how children from families without legal status—many of whom don’t speak English and haven’t been in a classroom—get swept under the rug of special education. Yet, with worsening teacher shortages many educators are losing hope these needs can be met.
“It is crucial for education policymakers and administrators to listen to the concerns of educators and take proactive steps to address these issues, such as reducing class sizes, providing additional support for special needs students, and offering resources to help teachers manage the challenges they face in the classroom,” Jess Brooks told The Epoch Times.
A former teacher turned homeschool mom, Ms. Brooks runs the educational resource network Hess UnAcademy.
She says the sharp rise in class sizes and students with special needs has had a profound impact on her fellow educators still working in traditional schools.
“‘I’ve heard from many colleagues and friends who continue to work as educators. They have shared their struggles in trying to meet the diverse needs of a larger and more complex student population.
“This phenomenon has resulted in increased stress and burnout among teachers, which is deeply concerning,” she said.
Ms. Brooks empathizes with teachers in today’s classrooms, whom she said are dedicated to their students but lack critical resources to provide adequate education.
Chief among these is the appropriate amount of staff.
“The combination of higher class volumes and insufficient additional support to address the growing population of special needs students is undoubtedly a significant factor contributing to this alarming trend,” she said.
Then there’s the skyrocketing number of children from asylum-seeking households, which Ms. Brooks noted adds another layer of complexity.
“Educators are faced with language barriers and cultural factors that add to their already heavy workload.”
Ms. Eisenreich understands this dilemma well and shared an incident from her time teaching in Arizona that illustrates how these challenges can manifest in the classroom.
“A U.S. family adopted four amazing kiddos off the streets of Brazil. They had never been in school, so in the middle of the year, my guy [student] started in 6th grade knowing nothing about school and spoke only Portuguese, so even my Spanish-speaking kids were unable to help.
“The poor soul had never had electricity and loved to explore, which sometimes meant you could find him preparing to stick a pen or paperclip into an outlet,” she recalled.
Working together as a class, they created “signs and gestures” for her Brazilian student. And this was just one student in one class.
In reality, there are tens of thousands of kids in public schools with similar backgrounds who need the same kind of specialized attention.
Ultimately, Ms. Eisenreich said the unrealistic demands placed on America’s post-pandemic educators helped seal her decision to leave the classroom for good.
Some fear this student population is a recipe for blanket referrals to special education, which carries almost double the teaching and related services cost.
The Epoch Times reached out to the U.S. Department of Education to inquire about additional resources for struggling teachers but did not receive a response.
Give And Take
Like so many career burnout issues, part of the problem is money.
Many teachers are in the profession because they have a passion for their work, but that only takes someone so far.
Underfunded districts and programs inevitably pass this buck—or lack thereof—onto educators.
This goes double for America’s struggling public school system.
One analysis states U.S. public schools were underfunded by $46 billion in 2016 and surged by another $25 billion by 2021.
That doesn’t account for inflation, which pushes the figure even higher.
This becomes problematic when trying to give teachers higher salaries despite dealing with increased workloads, hours, and a growing body of students with more complex needs.
In a 2023 survey, educators cited a lack of appropriate compensation as a primary factor behind their decision to quit.
People who work with and support educators say enough is enough.
“It is unwise to assume that educators can develop curriculum, lead classes, grade assignments, track individualized student goals, remain in constant communication with parents and families, maintain school [and] statewide standards, all whilst trying to help new students acclimate successfully into the new environment,” licensed master of social work, Clementia Jose, told The Epoch Times.
In her role as a student success advocate and social work supervisor, Ms. Jose sees the burden of increasingly complicated student needs weighing on teachers. However, when it comes to helping with language barriers, she maintains it’s unfair to pass that burden onto other students.
“Other bilingual students should not be given the responsibility of translating or teaching their new classmates,” she said, adding: “Educators all over the country appear unmotivated and fatigued by teaching due to the overwhelming demands … the lack of support presents a stumbling block to them within their day-to-day activities.”
Andrea Perry, an educator and certified health and wellness coach, shares this perspective.
“I was expected to meet all of the various academic needs on top of the emotional challenges my students were experiencing,” Ms. Perry told The Epoch Times.
She said educators feel like they’re being set up for failure on top of generally being unappreciated and unsupported. The cumulative effect is taking a toll on the mental health of many, driving the decision to leave the profession.
While Ms. Perry admits that growing class sizes and students with more specialized needs contribute to the overall problem, she says it comes down to broken promises and unmet expectations.
“The deeper issue is the lack of support we’ve been given, which has only increased throughout the last few years. Teachers are used to hearing promises without any real action being taken, so many are disillusioned about positive change actually taking place,” she said.