If you think American K-12 education policy is a complex and tangled web of laws, bureaucracies, incentives, politics and emotions — and you would be quite normal to do so — then treading into the narrower world of special education services might make your head completely spin. It’s the day after a long and fun Memorial Day weekend, in which most of my time was spent with playgrounds or Legos.
So rather than make any grand interpretations or pronouncements, I want to bring your attention to the new Fordham Institute report by Janie Scull and Amber Winkler, titled Shifting Trends in Special Education. Nationwide, the number and share of special education students peaked in 2004-05 and has been on the decline ever since. The report explains:
Much of the recent decrease in the overall special-education population can be attributed to the shrinking population of students identified with specific
learning disabilities (SLDs)
Ten years ago, 2.86 million out of 6.3 million special education students were identified with SLDs; today, the number is 2.43 million out of 6.48 million. Is it just possible that there might have been a problem with over-diagnosis, that many of the so-called learning disabled students were those not given effective and timely reading instruction in the early grades, and who therefore attracted more federal dollars? Not so fast. Over the past decade, diagnoses for autism, “developmental delay” and “other health impairments” rose significantly.
I’m impelled to wonder: What impact did No Child Left Behind have on the overall decline and changing distributions of special education diagnoses? To quote more important people than I, that’s above my pay grade. But as usual with any topic of this scope, you usually can learn more by breaking things down to the state level. So here are some observations from the Fordham report about my home state:
- Colorado remains among the lowest states for rates of students with a special education diagnosis (10.27%), currently third behind only Texas (9.13%) and Idaho (9.89%)
- For the most recent tabulated year of 2008-09, Colorado employed 139 teachers and paraprofessionals to serve 1,000 special education students (the national average is 129)
- Colorado is estimated to spend about 96 percent of the national average per special education student
I didn’t promise you I’d have all the answers for the special education issue. But states could do a lot, lot worse than copy what Florida has done with its successful McKay Scholarships — just ask Georgia, Oklahoma or Utah, to name a few.