DES MOINES, Iowa — Colin Bruhn has autism.  It means he struggles to communicate, has sensory issues, and has other developmental delays.  But one of the biggest challenges Colin and other kids like him are facing is a shortage of Special Education teachers and staff. 

“He has an IEP – Individualized Education Plan – that states that he needs a full-time professional to be with him,” his mom Kelly explains.  The problem is that for the first few months of the school year Colin did not have that support, because his school didn’t have enough teachers, paraprofessionals, or substitutes.

None of it surprises Drew Foster.  “I’m amazed at the ones who chose to stay,” he says. He used to teach Special Education and says he would never go back.  “In a school setting you can’t slow down for one kid,” he explains, “I had two associates that were amazing. They had been working at the school about as long as I’d been alive and they love the kids and they wanted to help but they weren’t getting the training or the pay they deserve.”

Dr. Angela Tuttle Prince started her career as a Special Education Teacher.  Now she teaches at Iowa State University.  She says shortages in the field have been an issue for decades, but now it’s become a crisis.  “These are some of the hardest working people in the building. They’re working with the students who require the highest level of support and they burn out fast.”

They are also working in a system that’s never been fully funded.  In 1975 Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It promises 40% of the cost of teaching and supporting Special Education students in every single public school district in the country. The reality is the federal government has never covered more than 20% of the cost and right now it’s paying for less than 16% of it.  That places a huge strain on schools, teachers, and families like the Bruhns. 

“I think it’s hard as a parent,” says Kelly, “you want to advocate heavily for your child but in this case when resources are scarce, I’m acutely aware that when I advocate really loudly for my son resources are going to be taken away from another child that equally needs those services.”

We reached out to Iowa’s congressional delegation about the lack of funding. We received no response from Representatives Miller-Meeks, Feenstra, or Hinson. We did hear back from the offices of Senators Grassley and Ernst and Representative Axne. Here is what their offices tell us:

“I regularly hear from our special education teachers, parents, and students about how important it is to ensuring our students get a high quality education — and since coming to Congress, I’ve never stopped fighting for them. Over my first two years, I’ve helped increase funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Special Education by more than $500 million – and earlier this year I voted to approve an additional $3 billion for those programs for the upcoming federal budget. I also co-sponsored legislation like the IDEA Full Funding Act and pushed my colleagues to provide robust and supportive funding for these services.”

-Congresswoman Cindy Axne (D)

“Senator Ernst is very concerned about and focused on addressing the shortages Iowa is experiencing right now across the workforce, but especially in critical areas like education. Senator Ernst knows that special education in particular is crucial for kids and families across our state and she is looking into this issue.”

-Spokesman for Senator Joni Ernst (R)

“I know that it takes great skills and dedication to educate students with special needs, and many school districts in Iowa tell me that they struggle to recruit these professionals. I am always happy to consider what can be done at the federal level to address this issue.”

-Senator Senator Charles Grassley