For children with special needs, having the right teacher can be crucial to reaching one’s full potential. If you’re eager to take on this challenging yet meaningful work, you might wonder what kind of living you can earn in the field – specifically if you go on to pursue a master’s degree in special education. While special education teachers usually earn somewhat more than general education teachers in their same grade level, the salary difference can be as dramatic as $26,000 per year or as negligible as under $200 per year. While special education teachers in certain states and types of school environments can expect to earn more than those in other work settings, it’s having a master’s degree that may make the biggest difference in your income potential as a special ed teacher.
Special Education vs. General Education Salaries
When you teach in a special education classroom, you know that your students may struggle academically and behaviorally. These challenges are part of working with students who have special needs. Even though it isn’t a surprise that you need to be more patient, resourceful and stoic than the average classroom teacher when working in special education, the job and its numerous responsibilities can be stressful.
In general, special education teachers see higher rates of pay than their general education peers. At some grade levels, that pay difference is pronounced. Preschool teachers make a median wage of just $29,780, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported, but special education preschool teachers make almost double, $55,840.
This pay discrepancy shrinks at the higher grade levels. Kindergarten and elementary school teachers see a median wage of $58,230 in general education and $59,390 in special education. Middle school special education teachers make barely higher wages, $60,250, while their general education counterparts earn a $58,600 median salary, according to the BLS. At the high school level, median salaries for special education teachers are $60,430 – not even $200 more per year than the $60,600 median wage for general education teachers.
Both public and private schools employ special education teachers, but public school roles are more prevalent, accounting for 86 percent of all jobs in the field. Public school special ed teachers also earn quite a bit more, with an overall median wage of $60,430, compared to $52,390 at private schools.
New York pays the highest wages for special education teachers at all grade levels. High school special education teachers here make an average annual salary of $86,330. California, Oregon, New Jersey, Connecticut and Alaska tend to be top payers, as well.
The Difference a Master’s Degree Makes
Earning a master’s degree is one reliable way for educators to increase their earning potential in most school districts. In fact, when surveyed, 88 percent of large school districts reported giving some form of an automatic pay increase to teachers who earn a master’s degree, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. That pay raise can be considerable. For special education teachers specifically, the BLS has reported a wage premium of 24 percent, or around $10,000 per year.
Having a master’s degree also can put you ahead of the competition when it comes to a job search, but how much you will stand out depends on the grade levels you teach. At the middle school level, where 47 percent of special education teachers have a master’s degree, you may need a graduate education just to keep up. Among preschool special education teachers, 24 percent hold a master’s degree, which means earning one could put you ahead of 75 percent of educators in the field. While 22 percent of special education teachers at the kindergarten and elementary school levels report a master’s degree as their highest level of education, another six percent have a master’s degree as well as a post-master’s certificate. Surprisingly, secondary school special education teachers have the lowest rates of graduate education among special ed teachers, with just 16 percent holding a master’s degree.
The increase in annual median wage for teachers with a master’s degree isn’t always consistent. Often, teachers with more experience see a higher pay boost from a master’s degree.