Special Education by the Numbers: A Look at Today's Public Schools

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines students who are eligible for special education services as children and youth ages 3-21.

6.6 million school-aged people receive special education services1. This accounts for 13 percent of all public school students.

Students 3 to 21 years old served under IDEA, 1976-77 through 2014-15

Students 3 to 21 years old served under IDEA, 1976-77 through 2014-15
School Year Number of students served
1976-77 3694
1980-81 4144
1990-91 4710
2000-01 6296
2004-05 6720
2005-06 6718
2006-07 6687
2007-08 6597
2008-09 6483
2009-10 6481
2010-11 6436
2011-12 6401
2012-13 6429
2013-14 6464
2014-15 6555

Under the IDEA, special education students are defined as those who have one of the 13 identified types of disabilities that also adversely affect their academic performance.

  1. Autism – Developmental disability that significantly affects verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction
  2. Deaf-blindness – Simultaneous hearing and visual impairments
  3. Developmental delay – Delay in one or more of the following areas of development: Physical, cognitive, communication, social, emotional or behavioral.
  4. Emotional disturbance2 – Manifests in a variety of ways that persists over an extended period of time and cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  5. Hearing impairment3 – Permanent or fluctuating impairment in hearing.
  6. Intellectual disability – Significant intellectual limitations combined with deficits in adaptive behavior.
  7. Multiple disabilities – Simultaneous impairments such as intellectual disability and orthopedic impairment or autism and blindness.
  8. Orthopedic impairment – Caused by congenital anomalies, diseases, or other causes (i.e., cerebral palsy, amputations).
  9. Other health impairment – Having limited strength, vitality, or alertness due to chronic or acute health problems such as sickle cell anemia or Tourette syndrome.
  10. Specific learning disability – Cognitive delay that results in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematics.
  11. Speech or language impairment – Communication disorders such as stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment, or voice impairment.
  12. Traumatic brain injury – An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external force that results in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment.
  13. Visual impairment – An impairment in vision that, even after corrective lenses, still adversely affects a student's educational performance.

Percent Distribution of Students with Disabilities

Percent Distribution of Students with Disabilities
Disability Percentage
Autism 8.8%
Deaf-blindness 0.0%
Developmental delay 6.4%
Emotional disturbance 5.3%
Hearing impairment 1.2%
Intellectual disability 6.4%
Multiple disabilities 2.0%
Orthopedic impairment 0.8%
Other health impairment 13.2%
Specific learning disability 34.8%
Speech or language impairment 20.3%
Traumatic brain injury 0.4%
Visual impairment 0.4%

Where are Special Education Students?

62% of special education students spend the majority of their time in general education classrooms.

This percentage has continued to rise since 1989 and demonstrates the growing need for support in  schools and communities as well as the changing perceptions of how we teach special education students.

Percentage of school-aged special education students who spend 80% or more of their time in general education

Percentage of school-aged special education students who spend 80% or more of their time in general education
Year 80 percent of time or more spent in classroom
1989 31.7
1990 33.1
1994 44.8
1995 45.7
1996 46.1
1997 46.8
1998 46.0
1999 45.9
2000 46.5
2001 48.2
2002 48.2
2003 49.9
2004 51.5
2005 54.2
2006 54.8
2007 56.8
2008 58.5
2009 59.4
2010 60.5
2011 61.1
2012 61.2
2013 61.8
2014 62.2

Who Works With Special Education Students?

Schools employ a variety of educators who work with special education students on a daily basis

Percentage of Teachers Who Teach Special Education by State

How are states allocating resources to special education students? Below, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the percentage of special education teachers employed by each state. 

State % of teachers who teach special education

Created by the USC Rossier School of Education

1 As of 2015. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp Return to footnote reference
2 Includes schizophrenia. Does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance. Return to footnote reference
3 Not included under IDEA definition of "deafness"

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