Almost 1 in 8 Students Labeled ‘Disabled’

Published April 1, 2002

A new study by the National Research Council shows enrollment in special education programs is growing at an unprecedented pace, with nearly one in eight students now labeled as disabled.

The study also reports some troubling trends regarding the disproportionately large representation of minority and male children in those programs. The likelihood of certain minority students being assessed as learning disabled or mentally retarded varies significantly by state.

The NRC’s Committee on Minority Representation in Special Education produced the study, “Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education,” edited by M. Suzanne Donovan and Christopher T. Cross. The study comes as Congress commences its examination of special education funding and regulations under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“Costs Have Mushroomed”

“Over the years, special education costs have mushroomed, straining the budgets of state and local government,” editorialized The Washington Post last November.

The question of increased federal funding for special education programs created some of the most impassioned moments of last year’s deliberations over President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” at times threatening to derail the entire process. Education Secretary Rod Paige assembled a Presidential commission to study ways to improve and reform special education programs. That commission is slated to report its recommendations to Congress in April, when the House and Senate Education Committees will likely be immersed in their IDEA reauthorization proceedings.

Burgeoning costs are a major consideration for policymakers, whose attention is being focused on what drives costs upward: the explosive growth in the number of students enrolled in special education programs. Another concern is that only one in four special education students exits those programs with a high school diploma, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education.

Who Are the Disabled?

The NRC study reports 12 percent of U.S. schoolchildren are currently labeled disabled, a 35 percent increase over the past decade. That increase is evident throughout each major category of disability.

The largest and fastest-growing disabled population, those deemed learning disabled, grew from 3 percent to 6 percent of all students over the past two decades. The number of students labeled emotionally disturbed tripled, to just under 1 percent.

Between 1948 and 1966, there was a 400 percent increase in the number of students identified as mentally retarded. But from 1974 to 1998, according to the NRC study, that classification shrank from just over 1.5 percent of the special education population to 1.37 percent.

The primary focus of the NRC study, however, is on the increase in minority representation in special education programs. African-American students are 1.6 times as likely to be classified as emotionally disturbed, and more than twice as likely to be classified as mentally retarded, as white students. The only categories of disabilities where white students are more likely to be disproportionately represented are for orthopedic impairment and “other health impairment,” two of the smallest populations examined.

The authors of the study suggest a relationship between poverty and disability as an explanation for the disproportionate representation of minority children in special education programs.

“We know that minority children are disproportionately poor, and poverty is associated with higher rates of exposure to harmful toxins, including lead, alcohol, and tobacco, in early stages of development,” they note. “Poor children are also more likely to be born with low birthweight, to have poorer nutrition, and to have home and child care environments that are less supportive of early cognitive development than their majority counterparts.”

Other prominent reformers point to other explanations related to the quality of public education received by minority students. For example, as Education Secretary Paige testified before Congress last year, “Our system fails to teach children many fundamental skills like reading, and then inappropriately identifies some of them as having disabilities.”

Discrepancies Between States

The NRC study also illustrates disparities in identifying special education students from one state to another.

For example, in 1997 and 1998, the two years examined, Delaware and New Mexico each ranked among the top three states where African-American students were at the greatest risk of being labeled learning disabled. Both states also were among the three states, along with New York, where Hispanic students were most likely to receive that classification.

In both study years, Alabama and Iowa were among the states where African-American students were most likely to be deemed mentally retarded. In each case, the risk for white students was substantially lower. Iowa also ranked among the states where African-American students were most likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed.

Other Factors

Males are significantly more likely than females to fall within each major disability group. The largest disparity is within the category of emotionally disturbed, where boys comprise some 80 percent of the population. Boys also constitute 70 percent of the learning disabled population, and 60 percent of those labeled mentally retarded.

Although receiving little discussion in the NRC study, another factor contributing to the increase in special education costs is the dramatic increase in the number of children two years old or younger enrolled in these programs. Between 1988 and 1997, the number of children in this group grew almost six-fold, from 34,270 to 197,376, according to an April 2000 report by the U.S. Department of Education. Most of these children received the services in their homes.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].