Special Education


Special Education

Each year, parents and school boards duke it out at hearings and in court over the kinds of services and placements their schools provide for students with special needs.Those battles over special education have their roots in the 1976 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.The basic tenets of that landmark federal law are that students with disabilities should be provided with a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE), and that this education should take place in the “least restrictive environment,

Each year, parents and school boards duke it out at hearings and in court over the kinds of services and placements their schools provide for students with special needs.Those battles over special education have their roots in the 1976 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.The basic tenets of that landmark federal law are that students with disabilities should be provided with a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE), and that this education should take place in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning as much as possible alongside students without disabilities. The articles, research and other materials collected in this Topics section examine the ways in which schools approach the process of educating students with special needs.

Since the inception of IDEA, the education of students with disabilities has varied across the country. The U.S. Department of Education monitors how states and districts are meeting the requirements of IDEA, but much of what it reviews focuses on processes—such as whether districts are evaluating students for special education services on time and whether they are working to inform parents about special education—rather than quality of the education that individual students receive.

In recent years, the number of students identified with some type of disability has changed, and for the first time since IDEA was enacted, overall numbers for students enrolled in special education dropped in 2005. One category of students, those with specific learning disabilities, has been responsible for much of the change, even though the numbers of students classified with other labels have increased. Many people attribute this drop to an approach called response to intervention (RTI). RTI is a set of techniques teachers use to address reading problems, and other issues, early in children’s school careers. Advocates for students with disabilities have voiced concern that districts and schools are using RTI as an alternative to providing students with disabilities with treatment, specialized instruction, or therapy. Another concern is that districts are using RTI as a way of identifying which students need special services, a purpose for which the approach was not originally intended. Advocates for RTI argue that it creates a continuum for students who need additional attention rather than merely placing students into either regular or special education.


Another area to probe regarding students with disabilities is testing. The implementation of IDEA has changed over time, and—when combined with the No Child Left Behind law —it now requires that students with disabilities participate in state assessment programs. (NCLB requires that at least 95 percent of students with disabilities are tested.) This mandate alone was a huge shift: Holding schools accountable for the assessment performance of students with disabilities was, to some advocates, a huge step forward. States and districts have to report how many students with disabilities are taking the same exams as their classmates without disabilities, and how many are taking alternative exams designed for students with severe cognitive disabilities. Some states have a test for students who fall in between, and this alternative has been a source of controversy. 

How long the requirements of NCLB will last is a question mark. Congress has proposed several ways to rewrite the law, and the Education Department has offered states waivers that would exempt them from some of the law’s requirements. It is also unclear how changes in the NCLB law will affect the education of students with disabilities. Many of the reauthorization proposals have been criticized because they deemphasize the idea of accountability for different subgroups of students, including those with disabilities.

Budget/maintenance of effort

IDEA includes a requirement called maintenance of effort (MOE), which orders districts and states to keep the amount of money they spend on students with disabilities the same from year to year, or increase the special education budget, with a few exceptions. Exceptions include when a child with expensive needs moves away or graduates, or when a long-term teacher making a large salary leaves the system. This policy is designed to buffer students from legislative budget whims: A student who needs a particular type of therapy or education setting keeps their services from year to year. However, some states have started to invoke a waiver process that allows them to cut their special education budget without being penalized an equal amount in federal IDEA dollars. The federal waivers are relatively easy to track and seem to have tapered off.

Districts have been more vocal about the increasing cost of special education in recent years. In some cases, special education has become a target of criticism from parents whose children do not have disabilities, as they see districts cut extracurricular activities and increase class sizes but keep special education services unchanged. Case in point: One Michigan district cut busing for all students except those with disabilities to save money.

The federal Education Department, however, has issued guidance that says districts can cut their special education budgets, too, without as much of a penalty as they would have faced in the past. Some districts for the first time are going over their special education spending carefully. The districts are curbing the practice of enrolling students in private schools and sending more students to their neighborhood schools (which saves on transportation costs but must be done with care). Many districts actually are treating students with disabilities more inclusively. Inclusion has long been considered an educationally sound idea, though it is not without its critics, but the financial incentive means some districts now are more inclined to act on recommendations for more inclusion.

Tougher Standards Under Obama

The number of states in compliance with federal special education rules dropped from 38 to 15 after the Obama administration implemented tougher regulations in June of 2014. The announcement coincided with a report chronicling the lapse in achievement among special education students in all 50 states. 

Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the U.S. Department of Education can require states to demonstrate compliance with the federal law in order to earn their share of the $11.5 billion IDEA funnels to states to educate students with disabilities. States will now be required to have special education students take the same standardized students as other peers, close the academic performance gap and  improve the outcomes of special education students on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). The department will transition to using states’ new standardized tests once they’ve all been aligned with college and career-ready standards. 

The federal government will provide $50 million in technical assistance over several years to help states beef up their compliance measurements.


Looking forward, as the No Child Left Behind era winds down and the advent of common-core standards and assessments approaches, it is likely that special education could change dramatically. The new standards and assessments are expected to be a challenge even for many students in regular education. Many educators think the adjustment could be particularly difficult for students with disabilities.

Latest News

Georgia System for Special-Needs Students Fails to Provide Equal Education

There are children with diagnoses including ADHD, bipolar disorder, and, increasingly, autism. They are often placed in separate classrooms within public schools and spend large numbers of hours on computers using technology that is not aligned with their specific needs. Georgia has had an entirely separate and separately funded program for children with emotional and behavioral disorders for five decades.

Latest News

Teachers Are Not Prepared for Students With Special Needs

Many teacher-education programs offer just one class about students with disabilities to their general-education teachers, “Special Ed 101,” as it’s called at one New Jersey college. It’s not enough to equip teachers for a roomful of children who can range from the gifted to students who read far below grade level due to a learning disability. A study in 2007 found that general-education teachers in a teacher-preparation program reported taking an average of 1.5 courses focusing on inclusion or special education, compared to about 11 courses for special-education teachers.

Member Stories

February 23 – March 2
Here's what we're reading by EWA members this week

Brian McVicar of Michigan Live spoke with parents facing some unsettling questions. For instance, if their children’s schools are closed because of poor academic performance, where would the kids go to get a better education? And, just as important, how would they get there?


Latest News

Parents of Autistic Children Are Urging Schools to Allow Controversial Communication Techniques

In a science class at Lakelands Park Middle School, 13-year-old Mike Keller sat between his professional aide and his science partner during a lesson about how force affects balance. The Montgomery County teen, who has autism, stood up a few times in a burst of energy and once walked out of the room. But with some redirection from his aide, he appeared to focus on a series of questions that his teacher posted on the whiteboard. 

Member Stories

February 9-16
Here's what we're reading by EWA members this week

For the San Antonio Express-News, Alia Malik speaks with families who still feel threatened by the shifting enforcement of immigration laws even after the San Antonio Independent School District Board of Trustees approved a resolution to protect their identities.


Latest News

Lawmakers Want Federal Special Education Site Restored

Two congressional lawmakers are asking the Trump administration to restore a missing U.S. government website that helps families navigate a complex federal law on students with disabilities. They also want U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ assurance that the site won’t be stripped down during her tenure.

Latest News

Betsy Devos Can Change Education In America Without Doing A Thing

Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos narrowly squeaked through the Senate on Monday, winning confirmation by a vote of 51 to 50 after Vice President Mike Pence weighed in to break the tie.

DeVos is the most controversial education secretary ever. She was confirmed with fewer votes than any Cabinet secretary in history. If Democrats hadn’t abolished the filibuster on executive branch nominees in 2013, DeVos’s opposition would have relegated her to the heap of Cabinet might-have-beens.

EWA Radio

Betsy DeVos Is Secretary of Education. Now What?
EWA Radio: Episode 108

Betsy DeVos takes the oath of office.

Kimberly Hefling of Politico discusses the new U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, who was confirmed Tuesday after Vice President Mike Pence was called in to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate. What will be her top priorities moving forward? How aggressively will the new secretary push school choice, and how likely is President Trump’s $20 billion school choice plan to gain traction? Has DeVos lost political capital during the bruising confirmation process? Was she held to a higher standard than other nominees for President Trump’s cabinet? And how much power will the Republican mega-donor have to roll back the Obama administration’s education policies and initiatives? 

Latest News

DeVos, SCOTUS, and the Future of Special Education

In fourth grade, Drew’s behavioral problems in school grew worse. Gripped by extreme fears of flies, spills, and public restrooms, Drew began banging his head, removing his clothing, running out of the school building, and urinating on the floor. These behaviors, which stemmed from autism and ADHD, meant that Drew was regularly removed from the classroom in his suburban school outside of Denver and only made marginal academic improvement, according to court documents.

Latest News

Devos Pledges Not To Undo Public Education, Pushes Choice

In a sometimes contentious confirmation hearing, education secretary pick Betsy DeVos pledged that she would not seek to dismantle public schools amid questions by Democrats about her qualifications, political donations and long-time work advocating for charter schools and school choice.

DeVos said she would address “the needs of all parents and students” but that a one-size fits all model doesn’t work in education.

Latest News

Devos Dodges Toughest Questions About Public School Plans

Republican philanthropist Betsy DeVos pledged Tuesday that she would be “a strong advocate for great public schools,” if confirmed as Donald Trump’s Education secretary.

But when pressed by Democrats, she wouldn’t commit to keeping federal funding intact for traditional public schools.

Latest News

Supreme Court Likely To Boost Public Schools’ Responsibilities To Children With Disabilities

The case of a Colorado boy with autism, Endrew F. vs. Douglas County School District, could have a far-reaching impact on millions of children and their parents as well as the budgets of school districts nationwide. During Wednesday’s argument, the justices struggled with the lawyers and among themselves to find the right legal standard.

Latest News

Supreme Court To Decide: What Level Of Education Do Public Schools Legally Owe To Students With Disabilities?

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday in a dispute over the level of education that public schools must provide to millions of children with disabilities, a case that advocates describe as the most significant special-education issue to reach the high court in three decades.

The question is whether public schools owe disabled children “some” educational benefit — which courts have determined to mean just-above-trivial progress — or whether students legally deserve something more: a substantial, “meaningful” benefit.

Latest News

Denied: Houston Schools Block Disabled Kids From Special Education

Houston schools provide special education services to a lower percentage of students than schools in virtually any other big city in America. Only Dallas serves fewer than Houston’s 7.26 percent. The national average is 13 percent. For months, as special education has come under increasing scrutiny in Texas, Houston Independent School District officials have described their percentage as a good thing, saying it is the product of robust early interventions that have helped students without labeling them.

Member Stories

September 29-October 6
What we're reading by EWA members this week

In the first story of a new series for The Hechinger Report, Lynell Hancock writes about Greenville, Mississippi, whose school district was the first in the state to “defy the governor and voluntarily offer real choice for white and black children to enroll in each other’s schools.”


One year after the deadly shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, the unity and solidarity of the surrounding community hasn’t waned, Andrew Theen reports for The Oregonian.

EWA Radio

How Texas Shortchanged Students With Disabilities
EWA Radio: Episode 90

new investigation by the Houston Chronicle finds that the Lone Star State took unusual steps to severely cut its special education programs — keeping hundreds of thousands of potentially qualified students from receiving services.

Chronicle reporter Brian Rosenthal talks with EWA public editor Emily Richmond about crunching the numbers, how this has impacted students and families, and what’s next in his reporting. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

The boys (and girls) are back in town. For class, that is.

See how forced that lede was? Back-to-school reporting can take on a similar tinge of predictability, with journalists wondering how an occasion as locked in as the changing of the seasons can be written about with the freshness of spring.

Recently some of the beat’s heavy hitters dished with EWA’s Emily Richmond about ways newsrooms can take advantage of the first week of school to tell important stories and cover overlooked issues.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Expert Reporter’s Tips: Covering Students with Special Needs

David DesRoches covers education and related topics for Connecticut's WNPR. (Source: WNPR)

When David DesRoches learned in 2013 that a small, wealthy Connecticut town was failing to educate its special-needs children properly, he began some textbook investigative journalism work: filing public records requests, cultivating dozens of sources, and trekking to meeting after meeting. What resulted was one of the most in-depth reporting projects ever on the rights of students with disabilities and the failures of their school districts to respect them.


69th EWA National Seminar

The Education Writers Association, the national professional organization for journalists who cover education, is thrilled to announce that its annual conference will take place from Sunday, May 1, through Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in the historic city of Boston.

Co-hosted by Boston University’s College of Communication and School of Education, EWA’s 69th National Seminar will examine a wide array of timely topics in education — from early childhood through career — while expanding and sharpening participants’ skills in reporting and storytelling.

Boston, Massachusetts
EWA Radio

Life After Graduation for Students With Disabilities
EWA Radio: Episode 26

For students with disabilities, it can be a rocky transition from a supportive school environment to the “real world” of college and career. What programs and services are helping to clear their path? Which districts and states are doing the best job at preparing students with disabilities to advocate for themselves? And where is the policy and practice falling short? Education Week delves deep into these issues.

Education Week staff writer Christina Samuels, the lead reporter on the Diplomas Count 2015 report Next Steps: Life After Graduation, talks with EWA Radio about the national trends, examples of best practices, and story ideas for local reporters writing about special education issues.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Debating the Special Education Challenge in Charter Schools

As the charter schools sector faces increased scrutiny for educating a smaller share of students with disabilities than traditional public schools, the conversation is increasingly focused on better understanding the reasons and looking for ways to improve the situation.


Federal Funding for Students with Disabilities

In Federal Funding for Students with Disabilities: The Evolution of Federal Special Education Finance in the U.S., New America provides a history of special education financing in the U.S., and highlights the latest shift in the mission of the IDEA funding formula: a change from providing dollars directly based on the number of special education students, to ensuring the federal government provides sufficient resources for those students without encouraging the over-identification of children as requiring special education–mainly by cutting out financial incentives to do so.


Federal Funding for Students with Disabilities
The Evolution of Federal Special Education Finance in the U.S.

In Federal Funding for Students with Disabilities: The Evolution of Federal Special Education Finance in the U.S., New America provides a history of special education financing in the U.S., and highlights the latest shift in the mission of the IDEA funding formula: a change from providing dollars directly based on the number of special education students, to ensuring the federal government provides sufficient resources for those students without encouraging the over-identification of children as requiring special education–mainly by cutting out financial incentives to do so.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Federal Government Gets Tougher on States Receiving Special Education Funds

Source: U.S. Department of Education

The number of states in compliance with federal special education rules dropped from 38 to 15 after implementation of tougher regulations today, according to a U.S. Department of Education report. The findings are part of a renewed push to help special ed students, who comprise roughly 13 percent of all public school kids in the U.S., in the form of new state regulations that take into account the achievement of students with disabilities.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Word on the Beat No. 1: Sequestration

One of the best things about getting to write The Educated Reporter blog is that it helps me keep up to date on the latest issues and concerns for public education. At the same time, I’m continually amazed at how quickly the jargon and buzzwords seem to multiply on the education beat. Starting today, I’m going to do my part to help add some clarity to the conversation. On a regular basis, I’ll tackle an Education Buzzword You Need To Know. (I say this with the full realization that such designations are highly subjective. But let’s give it a shot, shall we?)



This section of the IDEA website contains Part B and Part C data reported annually by states to the Office of Special Education (OSEP), including state-by-state, rank-ordered, and historic trend data.


The Office of Special Education Programs

The Office of Special Education Programs is the federal office responsible for the administration of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. OSEP offers a variety of “programs [that] are intended to ensure that the rights of infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and their parents are protected.”


The National Center for Special Education Research

Congress established the National Center for Special Education Research as part of the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The research of the center “systematically [explores] how to best design instruction to meet the needs of each child with a disability” with an emphasis on the policy and practices parts of the equation.


The National Center on Learning Disability

The National Center on Learning Disability, though not singularly focused on education, “works to ensure that the nation’s 15 million children, adolescents, and adults with learning disabilities have every opportunity to succeed in school, work, and life.” On the education front, the NCLD primarily works to inform parents of their child’s legal rights.


The National Association of State Directors of Special Education

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education has worked since 1938 with education agencies in the states and territories “to align policies and proven practices in order to ensure students with disabilities are afforded full participation in their education and successful transition to post-school education, employment and independent living.” Among the intiatives NASDE operates are the Response to Intervention (RTI) Project and the Deaf Education Initiative.


The Council for Exceptional Children

The Council for Exceptional Children “is the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving the educational success of individuals with disabilities and/or gifts and talents.” The Congressional policy and advocacy goals outlined on the council’s website offer insights toward what topics are currently prominent in the world of special education.


ALLIANCE National Parent Technical Assistance Center

As a project of the PACER center, the ALLIANCE National Parent Technical Assistance Center offers networking, support, and other resources to parents of students with disabilities, in particular through the development of Parent Centers that provide families with information. The site is a helpful resource in locating parents and families with special needs children in your region.

Key Coverage

Feds Receive Record Number of Complaints About Special Education

A new report from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights says that, from 2009 to 2011, the agency received more complaints about disability issues than ever before in a three-year period. During that time, 55 percent of the total number of complaints the civil rights office received had to do with disabilities. To put that number in context, consider that OCR enforces civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in a host of other areas, including race, national origin, sex, and age.


Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education

Today, Fordham is releasing a groundbreaking study that helps address those questions: Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education. Author Nate Levenson of the District Management Council uses the largest database of information on special education spending and staffing ever assembled to uncover significant variance in how districts staff for special education.

Key Coverage

Seminoles helped by ‘LD’ diagnoses

EWA 2010 National Reporting  Contest winner. For college athletes, how much help is too much if they have learning disabilities? This story features a fired disabilities coach who university officials say blurred the line between aiding student-athletes with learning disabilities and academic fraud. Other members of the university’s athletic academic support unit in some cases supplied answers to tests, and in other cases typed papers, for 61 athletes in football and other sports.