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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Special-ed numbers doubled in 40 years: Are 20% of New York kids really disabled?

Fifteen percent of K-12 students are in special education, nearly double what it was in the late '70s, according to a Pew Research Center report, reports Eesha Prendharkar in Education Week.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1975, requires all students with disabilities receive “free appropriate public education.” When schools began collecting data in 1976-77, 8 percent of students were considered disabled, and eligible for Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. The number has kept increasing, except for a brief pandemic dip.


The number of students in special education varies widely by state, probably due to differences in classification policies. New York classifies 20.5 percent of public school students as disabled, Pew reports. Pennsylvania, Maine and Massachusetts are almost as high. Only about 11 percent of students in Hawaii, Idaho, and Texas are in special ed.

One third have a “specific learning disability,” which means they have difficulty reading, writing or doing math. This is the largest category.


It's impossible to know how many would not need special help if they'd been taught well in the early grades.

Autism is the fastest growing diagnosis: 12 percent of special-education students are "on the spectrum."


About two-thirds of special-needs students are male. Enrollments tend to track racial/ethnic demographics, except for Asian Americans, who are less likely to classified as disabled.


For years, schools have had trouble hiring enough special-ed teachers. The pandemic made it even worse. Many students with disabilities didn't get promised services, parents complain.

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