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What's Really Happening With Special Education Enrollment?

I recently dug into a treasure trove of data maintained by the U.S. Department of Education's office of special education programs (OSEP) to find out the answer to a simple question: What are the recent trends in special education enrollment? 

What I found is that, after years of declining numbers, special education child counts have ticked up for the past few years

Why that may be happening, though, no one can say for sure. But Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University and a deeply sourced expert on special education policy, reached out with an interesting technical point after he read the article. 

You refer to an "uptick" but it is based on numbers rather than percentages. Thus, if the school population increased during the same period, the percentage of [special education] students may have increased, remained the same, or decreased during that time, while providing a more simple, straightforward, and cogent explanation for the uptick that those the commentators offered. Without the reference point of total enrollment numbers, the special ed numbers alone are important (in terms of costs and other significant factors) but incomplete (in terms of longitudinal trends).

In other words, more students overall = more special education students, potentially.

Zirkel makes a good point. To investigate, I turned to the available data to see if the percentage of special education students has been following the same trajectory as the number of special education students. For special education students aged 6-21 as a percentage of the overall student population, I used figures from OSEP's 37th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That report, released in 2015, uses data up to the 2013-14 school year. 

For the number of special education students, I used the data reported in my article. That is a combination of figures taken from the Education Department's Report to Congress and the Education Week Research Center's data from 2014-15. The data from 2014-15 are the most recent available, but they haven't yet made it into the annual report—those reports, which are rich data sources in themselves, do lag a bit.

I then plotted the information below. 

As you can see, the overall trend lines are roughly the same. However, I don't yet have data for the percentage of special education students in 2014-15. So without that, it is not clear if the one-year uptick that you can see in the graph is the beginning of a trend, or simply a blip. 

Zirkel's point still stands, though the trend lines suggest that, at least when it comes to the decline of special education students up until a few years ago, both the percentage of special education students and the number of special education students are moving in concert. 

Changes Within the Population of Special Education Students

Setting aside numbers and percentages, the changes in how students are classified is also interesting to consider. For example, the percentage of students with autism has risen 165 percent over the past decade. The percentage of students with other health impairments—a catch-all category for students with physical or mental disabilities—has risen 51 percent. In contrast, the percentage of students with specific learning disabilities has dropped 17 percent over the past decade. That category has been, and remains, the largest group of students covered under the IDEA. The second largest group of students, those with speech and language impairments, has fallen by 11 percent. 

It's important to note that any changes in these numbers alone cannot be used to make statements about the actual number of children with disabilities in the country (as opposed to those enrolled in special education). The data, which is collected under Section 618 of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, only tracks students covered under the students covered under the IDEA. Many policies at the local, state or federal level affect whether students are enrolled in special education, and what disability categories they end up in.

For example, when IDEA was reauthorized in 1997, regulations made it clear that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder could be included in disability category of "other health impairment." That policy change correlates to a large increase in special education enrollment a few years later. IDEA's reauthorization in 2004 provided a boost to response to intervention, an education framework that provides targeted assistance to students who are struggling academically. That policy change correlates with a decline in special education enrollment—possibly because students were getting the early help they needed so that they wouldn't be referred for special services. 

Also, sometimes the data are just messy. For the most recent year, 2014-15, Wyoming's numbers were not available. In other years, other state counts are missing. Sometimes state counts are oddly high, such as New York in 2014-15, which added about 31,000 students to the special education rolls that year. That's more than a third of the 85,000-student increase seen nationwide. 

What I found most noteworthy is how little we know, on a national basis, about how much is spent on special education and what connection any of that spending has to student outcomes. There were a series of reports that came out in the early 2000s on special education funding, and they can be found at the website of the Center for Special Education Finance/Special Education Expenditure Project. But all those reports were based on figures collected during the 1999-2000 school year. Wouldn't it be interesting to know how the state of special education funding has changed since then?


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