The Growing Number of Special Education Students in America

Public school teachers in Los Angeles, California went on strike last month to demand better conditions for students in their schools. Not only were teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District asking for a pay increase but also demanded smaller class sizes, more counselors, more librarians and a full-time nurse in every school.1

Such stories are becoming all too common in the media, particularly with respect to the impact on public school systems of the need for special education teachers and classes to serve the growing numbers of children in the U.S. with learning disabilities, developmental delays, and other special needs. News headlines such as “Special education enrollment in California is up. No one can say exactly why” and “Minnesota schools facing crisis level in special education funding” and “Special education funding should be Legislature’s top priority” are reflective of the crisis that public schools are facing in America.2 3 4

In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of students’ ages 3-21 requiring services through the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) as a result of their complex special education requirements.5

From the school year 1990-91 to  2004-2005, the number of students aged 3-21 who received special education services was 4.7 million (11 percent of the total public school enrollment).5 By 2015-16, the number of students of the same age group receiving special education services increased to 6.7 million (13 percent of the total public school enrollment).6 7 Among those, 34 percent had specific learning disabilities, of which 20 percent had speech or language impairments and 14 percent had other health impairments that impacted their ability to learn in a traditional classroom.

In addition to special education needs, the number of children with chronic health conditions has increased from 12.8 percent in 1994 to 26.6 percent in 2006.5 This increase of children and adolescents requiring extra support resources due to autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyper activity disorder, food allergies, asthma, juvenile diabetes, etc., has placed an enormous economic staffing burden on public schools….

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