special education


More than 1 in 7 students has a disability that qualifies them for special ed services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first passed in 1974. But in spite of their numbers and the time educators have had to learn how to instruct disabled youngsters, schools still generally have a difficult time graduating disabled youth on time, or at all. Parents say the schools aren't being held accountable; schools say there's too much paper work and not enough money to teach these students adequately.

Bush's No Child Left Behind Act tries to address the first concern ? accountability ? by requiring that all schools be judged on how well their disabled students are progressing. Regarding inadequate funding: although IDEA sets high funding goals - authorizing the feds to pay up to 40% of the average cost per pupil (average of all students, not just special ed) to support special education - the government has yet to come near that 40% ceiling.


  • From the IDEA: "The term `child with a disability' means a child... with mental retardation, hearing impairments, speech or language impairments, visual impairments, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities... who... needs special education and related services.

Students who receive special ed services

  • Number of students 6- 21 who receive special education services:

    • 6 million (13% of all students) (2002) (OSEP)

  • Number of students 3-21 with disabilities in federally supported programs

    • 2005: 6.8 million (DOE)

Types of disabilities.

Out of those students, how many are (OSEP):

Where special ed kids get instruction

The vast majority of disabled students, even those with severe mental retardation, attend regular public schools. 2000-2001 (NCES)

Graduation - or moving on

In 2001, 583 thousand disabled students 14 and older exited special-ed (NCES), here's why:

IDEA - basics of the law

As we mentioned, IDEA gives states money to provide for students with disabilities. In return, states have to follow the complex requirements and guidelines of IDEA. Roughly those are:

  • Free and Public Education (FAPE): no matter how severe the disability, every child is entitled to full access to public education.

  • Evaluations: Every child suspected of having a disability must receive an evaluation.

  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): a disabled student should be separated from general-ed classes only if absolutely necessary.

  • Individualized Education Program (IEP): every disabled student receives an educatioal program that is tailored to their specific needs.

  • Parent involvement: Parents and students (if appropriate) are equal partners in the disabled students educational process


Average cost to educate (OSEP) (pdf) (2000):

  • A child who doesn't receive special ed services:

    • $6,556;

  • A child who does receive special ed services:

    • $12,639.

Special-ed costs and federal funds

  • total costs for educating students with special ed needs: (SEEP) (2000)

    • $78.3 billion, including:

      • $27 billion on general education;

      • $50 billion on additional special education;(OSEP)

      • $1 billion on other services.

  • IDEA grant: $5 billion (DOE) (2005)

  • Percent of costs shouldered by federal government: 5.7% (Another number from the Washington Post:
    19%. This number may be much bigger since it comes from 2004 when the feds had increased the IDEA funding. But that can't explain the whole difference; it may also show the percentage not of total costs of educating kids with disabilities but only additional special ed costs.)

Where the facts are from:

OSEP - US Office of Special Education Programs - government site

Updated Summer 2005.

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