Special Education Explainer

Special Education: Definition, Statistics, and Trends

By Maya Riser-Kositsky — December 17, 2019 | Updated: January 09, 2024 | Corrected: December 19, 2019 4 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misnamed the federal law governing special education. The correct name is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Definition of special education

Special education encompasses the programs which serve students with mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral disabilities. The major law governing special education is the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees a “free appropriate public education” to children with disabilities and mandates that, to the “maximum extent appropriate,” they be educated with their nondisabled peers in the “least restrictive environment.” Read more.

What is an IEP?

An Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a program tailored to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities. The program is written in collaboration with a child’s school district, their parent or guardian, and sometimes, the student.
The document outlines the special educational needs based on the student’s identified disability. Read more.

How many students are in special education?

In the U.S. overall, 14.7 percent of all students were special education students (ages 3-21) in 2021-22. The percentage varied by state from 11.3 percent in Hawaii to 20.5 percent in New York.

Share of special education students by state

See the percent of special education students by state in the map below:

Has the number of students served in special education increased?

Yes. In the past decade, the number of students with disabilities has grown from 6.4 million, or 12.9 percent of all students in 2011-12, to almost 7.3 million, or 14.7 percent in 2021-22.

Special education statistics by race

While overall, 14.7 percent of public school students were served by IDEA in 2020-21, that number varies by race and ethnicity.

    Are schools overidentifying minority students with disabilities?

    Federal law requires that states monitor their districts for overidentifying students with disabilities. Several studies have found that minority students are actually being underidentified for disabilities.

    But some new studies are uncovering more nuanced findings, suggesting that minority students are overidentified in some contexts and underidentified in others. Read more.

    What are the demographics of special education teachers?

    Although research has shown that students often do better in school when they have a teacher of the same race, just over 81.8 percent of special education high school teachers in public schools are white, higher than the teaching population as a whole, according to the most recent data available. But under half of all students receiving special education services are white, according to 2021-22 data.

    Read more about efforts to prepare, recruit, and retain special education teachers of color.

    Inclusion statistics

    A majority of special education students—66.5 percent of those ages 6-21 and 5-year-olds in kindergarten—spend 80 percent or more of their time in regular education classes, according to 2021 data. That number has more than doubled in recent decades. In 1989, only 31.7 percent of students ages 6-21 spent 80 percent or more of their time in regular classes.

    Getting students with disabilities into general education classrooms is not a silver bullet, researchers say. Read more to learn what else needs to happen to raise academic outcomes for students with disabilities.

    Learning disabilities statistics

    The specific learning disabilities category is the most common one covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—in 2021-22, 32.4 percent of students with disabilities had specific learning disabilities.

    Autism statistics

    12.2 percent of all students with disabilities have been diagnosed with autism alone, according to 2021-22 data.

    Which disability categories have grown the most?

    In the past decade, the number of students with disabilities as a percentage of total enrollment has increased a small amount, from 12.9 percent in 2011-12 to 14.7 percent in 2021-22. The mix of disabilities those students have, however, has changed dramatically.

    The percent of students with disabilities who had a specific learning disability, like dyslexia, decreased from 36 percent in 2011-12 to 32.4 percent in 2021-22. And the percent of students with disabilities with autism grew from 7.1 percent to 12.2 percent over the same period.

    How much money is spent on special education by the federal government?

    In fiscal year 2018, the federal government earmarked $12.3 billion for the education of children ages 3-12 with disabilities. That’s only about 15 percent of the excess cost of educating students with disabilities, compared with the cost of educating a general education student. The federal government under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act set a goal to pay states up to 40 percent of the excess cost. It never reached that goal.

    For more on special education funding, read this explainer.

    What is the student-teacher ratio for special education students?

    In 2016, there were 17.1 special education students for each special education teacher in the United States. That’s higher than the overall student-teacher ratio of 16.2 students per teacher.

    From 2006 to 2016, the number of special education teachers decreased by 17 percent, while the number of special education students only dropped by 1 percent. Read more about how that plays out on the school level.

    For more information on special education, check out our Special Education topics page.

    How to Cite This Article
    Riser-Kositsky, M. (2019, December 17). Special Education: Definition, Statistics, and Trends. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/special-education-definition-statistics-and-trends/2019/12

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