Special education enrollment declines

Patrick Gibbons

Nationwide, enrollment in special education declined from 6.7 million in 2004-05 to 6.6 million students in 2007-08 (latest data available). Specific learning disabilities (SLD) – which is the largest but mildest form of special education – fell from 2.9 million to 2.6 million over that same period. Even the number of students classified with mental retardation fell slightly.

It is interesting to see this evidence (again) just after the Clark County School district requested legislation to boost funding for their special education programs.

But why are special-ed enrollments dropping?

Some, like professor Torgesen at Florida State, claim early intervention and improved reading education (like Reading First) are a cause for the decline in special education enrollment (some SLD children are classified as special-ed because previous teachers were ineffective, not because the student was born with an impairment).

Torgesen also suggest it may budgetary – special education costs about 1.6 times more than regular education – and other education programs like class-size reduction are squeezing funds available for special education.

Yet others, like Dr. Jay P. Greene at the University of Arkansas, argue that declining enrollment may also be the result of districts identifying fewer students as learning disabled to avoid paying private school tuitions (as required by Federal law if the public school cannot provide appropriate services). According to Greene, districts appear to have been labeling students SLD to acquire additional resources attached to special education. Greene found evidence that special education vouchers are correlated with a decline in students being labled SLD.

Also, Greene notes that students in private special education look considerably different than in public schools. Public school special-ed is dominated by speech/language disabilities and specific learning disabilities, while private school special-ed is dominated by students with autism, multiple disabilities and emotional disturbances.