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Who Gets Special Education Services? It Depends on Where You Live, GAO Report Finds

About 13 percent of the nation's public school students—close to 7 million children and youth ages 3 to 21—receive special education services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But that overall percentage masks dramatic variability at the state level, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency.

The identification rates for students ages 6-21 ranged from 6.4 percent in Hawaii to 15.1 percent in Puerto Rico in fall 2016, the report said. (The highest identification rate in a state that year was Maine, at 12.3 percent.) For children ages 3 to 5, the identification rate in fall 2016 ranged from 3.9 percent in Texas to 14.6 percent in Wyoming.

The process of identifying public school students for special education eligibility is called "child find," and is mandatory under the IDEA. But states have some flexibility to decide what "counts" as a disability.

The GAO started to dig into the question of special education identification in the wake of news articles in 2016 showing that Texas suppressed the number of students identified with disabilities. The federal office of special education programs is currently monitoring Texas as it takes corrective action

But states are permitted to have their own criteria under the law. As an example, the GAO report called out the special education category called "developmental disability," which can be used for children from birth to age 9. Maryland states that a child must have at least a 25 percent delay in one or more areas to be eligible for early-intervention services. Examples of developmental areas are social skills, fine or gross motor skills, or language skills. In Arizona, a child needs to demonstrate a 50 percent delay in one or more developmental areas in order to receive early intervention.

State officials said that they are sometimes hampered by a lack of staff to handle evaluations, or by staff confusion over IDEA requirements. Many districts also said that the use of response to intervention, or RTI, can sometimes delay moving a student into special education. Response to intervention is an educational framework based on universal screening of all students, then providing increasingly targeted and intensive lessons, or "interventions," to students based on identified areas of weakness. Students are then monitored closely for their response to those interventions. The Education Department has said that RTI cannot delay child find obligations

The GAO report did not call for action, but congressional Democratic leaders said it demonstrates the need for more federal oversight. "This report shows there's a lot of work left to do to make sure we are connecting children across the country who have a disability to the resources that can help them learn, grow, and succeed," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

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