Strategic Staffing: Part 4—Special Education

March 19, 2021 • Jennifer Barton

Strategic Staffing: Part 4—Special Education

The fourth article of our strategic staffing series focuses on special education services which can be compared to state averages and recommended benchmarks.

Staffing for special education

Current Texas rules leave the determination of staffing for special education services to local district discretion. However, districts often struggle to balance the needs of individual students receiving special education services and staffing each instructional program adequately.

Evaluating staffing for special education programs in districts can be a complex task. Districts need to assess the number of staff in proportion to the students served, as well as allocate staff appropriately to meet the individual needs of students, which may vary over time. By developing a system to determine special education staffing per campus level and instructional program, districts can strategically assign staff to programs while ensuring the needs of students are met at all campuses.

Determining student to staff ratios

Currently, the state average for special education staffing is one teacher per 15 special education students and one special education staff member to seven special education students when educational aides are included. While these averages do not consider the individual education plans (IEPs) and needs of students, they do provide a baseline for special education staffing.

Comparing district averages to the state average is a fairly simple process. To determine the number of teachers required to obtain the state student to teacher ratio, the district can divide the total number of students serviced in all special education programs by the state average of 15.0 students per teacher. The quotient will be the number of teachers required to achieve a student to teacher ratio of 15.0 in all programs. The district should then determine the difference between this result and the current number of teachers to determine the surplus or shortage of teachers compared to the state average.

Below is an example:

The district has a total of 270 students serviced in all programs and currently staffs 16 teachers. 

  • 270 students/15.0 (state average) = 18.0
  • 16.0 teachers – 18.0 = -2.0
  • 2.0 is the shortage of teachers compared to the state average

To determine staff to student ratios, the district can divide the total number of students serviced in all special education programs by the state average of 7.0 special education students per staff member. The quotient will be the number of total staff members required to achieve a student to staff ratio of 7.0 in all programs. The district should then determine the difference between this result and the current number of staff to determine the surplus or shortage of total staff compared to the state average.

Below is an example:

The district has a total of 270 student serviced in all programs and currently employs 60 special education staff. 

  • 270 students/7.0 = 38.6
  • 60 – 38.6 = 21.4
  • 21.4 is the surplus of staff compared to the state average

In this example, the district staffs fewer teachers and significantly more educational aides supporting special education when compared to the state average.

Once districts know how many teachers and total staff members are currently in the special education program, they can assess staffing ratios of specific instructional programs and adjust accordingly. Restructuring staffing in special education settings improves the ability of campuses to provide adequate support to students while implementing instructional programs with fidelity.

Benchmarks for instructional programs

Each special education instructional model has a recommended benchmark for the number of special education staff to provide services to students. By aligning special education staffing with recommended benchmarks, districts can ensure students are receiving quality instruction and support across all programs. Educational aides assigned to a 1:1 based on a student’s IEP created by the annual, review, and dismissal (ARD) committee should not be included in this analysis.

Each instructional model is compared to a specific benchmark derived from factors including an average weighted caseload, the grade level being served (elementary school, middle school, or high school), as well as an average for the student’s handicapping condition.

Benchmarks for each instructional model are:

  • Resource/Inclusion/Content Mastery: The benchmark student-to-staff ratio is 15:1 at the high school, 12:1 at the middle or junior high school, and 9:1 at the intermediate school and the elementary school level.
  • Life Skills/Autism: The benchmark student-to-staff ratio is 4:1 with a minimum of two staff members in a classroom regardless of the grade level.
  • Behavior: The recommended benchmark levels vary by grade level. The benchmark student-to-staff ratio is 6:1 at the high school, 5:1 at the middle or junior high school, and 4:1 at the intermediate and elementary school level. Self-contained classrooms require a minimum of two staff members regardless of grade level.
  • Early Childhood Special Education: The benchmark student-to-staff ratio is 4:1 with a minimum of two staff members in a classroom.

Any adjustments to staff should reflect alignment with recommended benchmarks and account for the individual needs of students, if appropriate. Districts should aspire to adopt internal guidelines for staffing by program to help campus principals and special education program staff make appropriate staffing decisions each year.

Assessment staff

Assessment staff provide evaluation and programming recommendations for special education students in school districts. Assessment staff typically include educational diagnosticians, licensed specialists in school psychology (LSSPs), speech language pathologists (SLPs), and speech language pathology assistants (SLPAs).

The number of assessment staff allocated per campus is dependent on the number of students served as well as the percentage of time assessment staff is directly performing assessment duties. In some districts, assessment staff may have additional responsibilities (e.g., supervision, counseling services, ARD facilitation) that prevent them from performing assessments or providing services 100 percent of the time.

Recommended caseload benchmarks for assessment staff are:

  • Educational Diagnosticians and LSSPs: The recommended caseload is 80 to 85 students per educational diagnostician or LSSP. Districts need to adjust the percentage of time spent on assessment depending on how much time is dedicated soley to that task.
  • Speech: The recommended caseload is 45 to 50 students for SLPs and SLPAs. Districts need to adjust the percentage of time for SLPs who supervise one or more SLPAs in the district. SLPAs are typically adjusted due to the scope of services provided.

Districts should determine the appropriate number of assessment staff based on the number of students served in the district’s special education program. Staff full-time equivalents (FTEs) may be adjusted depending on specific responsibilties and duties. Districts should include all students receiving speech services when determining caseloads for speech staff and take into account supervision requirements for SLPAs and limitations of scope of services.

Moving forward

Analyzing current special education staffing is key to providing quality special education services for students. By understanding how to use staffing ratios and recommended benchmarks, districts can plan for the future and ensure that all special education students receive the best instructional programming at their campus.

The next article in the series will focus on educational aides and campus clerical staff.


Jennifer Barton is a compensation and HR consultant at TASB HR Services. Send Jennifer an email at jennifer.barton@tasb.org.


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