Year after year, with just one exception, the pattern has been the same: No matter how much K-12 enrollment in the United States grew, the roster of special education students grew by a greater percentage. Even during the “baby bust,” when enrollment dropped overall, the number of children designated as having disabilities still swelled.
As a result, the number of special education students has nearly doubled since 1977. Over that time, the annual growth rate has averaged 2.5 percent, increasing to an annual average of 3.2 percent in the past 10 years.
The phenomenon lends special urgency to a process going on here mostly outside the general public’s consciousness: the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And the persistent growth, fueled by federal requirements, assertive parents, and expansive definitions of what constitutes a disability, could bring about a major shift in focus for the nation’s education system.
If the steady growth continues, the special education population—the most expensive and challenging subset of students to educate—could expand from the current 12 percent of enrollment to 16 percent within a decade. If the rate levels off, even conservative estimates put it at around 14 percent.
As recently as 1989, just 10 percent of all students were considered to have disabilities.
With the upward trend in mind, GOP lawmakers who put the first version of the IDEA overhaul on paper proposed creating a cap that would curb the federal money for such students. The cap would now limit states to collecting federal special education funding based on 13.5 percent of their students, even if a higher percentage were enrolled in a state’s programs. The pot of federal money in each state would then have to be divvied up among however many special education students there were, leaving fewer dollars per student.
Part of the goal of the changes to the IDEA introduced recently by Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, supporters of the proposal say, is to discourage states from needlessly placing students in special education. (“House Panel OKs IDEA, Sans Locked-In Funding,” this issue.)
“The practical effect of not having this cap is that states would have a financial incentive to overidentify children for special education,” said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the committee. “This is unacceptable. Children should be identified for educational services based on their individual needs, not based on financial considerations.”
But education advocates say the cap may prevent schools from serving students with legitimate special needs at a time when the population of such children in fact is growing.
“In many cases, there’s no way for a state to account for a number of the kids they identify,” said Patti Ralabate, a special education adviser at the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. “Maybe the state has an excellent school for the deaf, or has environmental factors that lead to more disabilities. [The proposed cap] will put a huge burden on schools.”
Two states exceed 13.5 percent, Ms. Ralabate said.
Experts say they are encouraged by an ebbing in recent years of the special education growth rate since a hothouse period in the mid-1990s, when the special education rolls grew by 3 percent to 4 percent for several years and even spiked at 7.2 percent in the 1995-96 school year. Projections for overall enrollment and special education in the coming years suggest the slowing of the special education boom may continue.
But special education growth rates through the years have been notably idiosyncratic. In the 27 years since Congress guaranteed students with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education, the rate has taken a rollercoaster ride. Experts cannot explain why in the 1986-87 year, for instance, the special education population actually decreased by 0.1 percent, the only time overall enrollment growth exceeded it. Nor, conversely, can they find a rationale for the 1995-96 anomaly.
Given the possibility of what would amount to a federal penalty for identifying too many special education students, observers of the field say that never before has there been a greater imperative for educators to understand what drives the growth.
As Congress goes about retooling the IDEA, the increasing special education population likely will inform every aspect of that work.
School districts are already crying out for relief from resources stretched thin, especially during a time of intense budget pressures. Educators claim burnout from overwhelming paperwork requirements documenting the needs of special education children. Districts face shortages of special education teachers.
The annual fluctuations aside, experts in the field have a number of explanations for the overall growth in special education.
After 1986, the special education population climbed in part because Congress expanded the reach of the IDEA to cover infants and toddlers. Medical advances have led to survival of more children after difficult births, and to techniques for managing severe disabilities that in the past would have kept some children out of school altogether. The number of children living in poverty with a lower level of readiness for school, circumstances that result in a higher percentage of special education designations, has risen as well.
But many say the U.S. education system has built-in flaws that help drive the growth in the special education population.
The categories with the greatest growth in special education are not tangible infirmities such as blindness or physical disabilities. Instead, the boom has occurred in special education categories with more subjective diagnoses such as “specific learning disabilities"; “other health impairments,” which includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; and behavioral and emotional disorders.
It’s the rising numbers in such categories that lead some experts to question whether schools are “overidentifying” students with disabilities, as many lawmakers argue. And if so, why?
Last June, President Bush’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education recommended changes to improve the overloaded system. The report said the current special education system waits for children to fail before referring them for special services.
“Too little emphasis is put on prevention, early and accurate identification of learning and behavior problems, and aggressive intervention ...,” the report said. “This means students with disabilities do not get help early when that help can be most effective. Special education should be for those who do not respond to strong and appropriate instruction and methods provided in general education.”
Having two distinctly separate worlds—regular education and special education—has created one big problem: Special education has become a dumping ground for children whom the regular system cannot handle, some contend.
“Special education is the receiver,” said D. Kim Reid, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “The existence of special education enables general education not to have to change to accommodate these children with greater needs.”
Whether it’s due to lack of time, resources, or ability to help students individually, teachers may have ample incentive to refer students to special education. For many schools with budgets stretched thin, special education may be the only program with additional funding for individual assistance.
“Special education is the only game in town if you want to get support for a student,” said Ms. Ralabate. “So it does not surprise me that there are higher rates of referral.”
Some see another, counterintuitive, factor feeding the growth. The stigma long associated with having a disability, or having a child labeled as having a disability, they suggest, has in a large way lifted over the years. Many parents embrace and even seek out a diagnosis of a learning disability or behavioral disorder—in part, perhaps, to lift responsibility from themselves, Ms. Reid said.
“Parents want their kids to succeed,” she said. “If their child has problems, and they can say it’s because of a neurological problem, no one’s to blame.”
Society has swung so far away from stigmatizing disabilities, she argued, that in some well-to-do communities, there is a risk of having a “fad diagnosis.”
“There is always the popular disorder of the moment,” Ms. Reid said. “When parents take their kids to be evaluated, what they [parents and evaluators] are thinking about is what they see.”
But Jane Browning, the executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, based in Pittsburgh, scoffed at that notion. “Anyone who thinks it is ‘faddish’ to have a learning disability is invited to live in the home of a student who has one and see the struggle,” Ms. Browning said. “It is insulting.”
And then there’s race.
Large-scale national studies have shown that black students are more likely to be placed in special education under categories of mental retardation and emotional or behavioral disturbance than their white counterparts are. Researchers say minority students who come from disadvantaged neighborhoods may not be as prepared when they start school, or have cultural and behavioral differences that their white, middle-class teachers do not understand.
Another cohort of experts says the increase in special education students is in fact a triumph of the education system, and of society in general.
General education teachers have become more astute at detecting learning disabilities or other complex or subtle problems, said Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, a special education advocacy group based in Arlington, Va.
Also, educators say a greater emphasis on keeping students in school has also led to increases in special education. And the growing emphasis on accountability, some say, specifically the increased testing requirements of the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, will only increase the number of students placed in special education.
“If you raise the bar, more kids are going to fall below it and do poorly,” said Ms. Reid of Teachers College. “It is opening the floodgates. All of these kids who were doing OK will not be doing OK.”
Since 1975, the year the original version of the IDEA was signed into law by President Ford, the proportion of students with specific learning disabilities has increased from about one-fourth of the population of students with disabilities to almost half, according to Department of Education statistics. The number of such students increased greatly in the 1990s, fueling that decade’s overall boom.
The category includes students with dyslexia, a reading disability; dysgraphia, a writing disability; and other disorders.
Educators say students with reading difficulties are frequently misdiagnosed as having learning disabilities. To address that problem, other proposed changes to the IDEA now on the table would authorize paying for the development of early-intervention programs in schools.
But many educators are concerned that without guaranteed extra federal funding for special education overall, proposals to reduce the number of students identified for special education will fall flat. The proposed cap, they reason, would have the perverse effect of increasing the demand for special education services by stanching the supply of funds to provide them.
“If school districts don’t get enough money,” Ms. Ralabate of the NEA said, “it will greatly hinder the ability of schools to serve the growing number of special education students.”