Special Education


Special Education

Shrouded in legalese and confusing acronyms, special education can be a daunting topic to cover for even the most experienced education reporters.

Shrouded in legalese and confusing acronyms, special education can be a daunting topic to cover for even the most experienced education reporters.

Across the U.S., more than 7 million children in pre-K through the 12th grade receive special education services at school — that’s about 14 percent of the total public school population. 

Sometimes, their disabilities, or “exceptionalities,” may be visible, such as a physical impairment. For most, though, what makes learning difficult isn’t immediately apparent, thereby complicating the challenge for teachers, parents and even the students themselves to discover what exactly it is they need to be successful in school.

Because of privacy laws, getting to these students and their stories isn’t easy. But when done, special education reporting can lead to both compelling and impactful journalism

For journalists looking to dig into the topic, there’s good news: Just like the vast array of student needs, the avenues to probe in special education are seemingly limitless. 

Too often, districts and schools set policies without first considering their impact on students with disabilities, leading to innumerable issues reporters can — and should — interrogate through both daily and enterprise stories. 

Whether reporters cover a specific special education issue or incorporate students with disabilities into their generalized coverage, the inclusion and visibility of these issues and voices may prove necessary to provoke needed change.

Opportunities for investigation in special education include the over- or under-identification of Black and brown students for different special education programs; the disproportionate use of seclusion and physical restraint on students with disabilities; and the intersection of special education and school choice.

And in a post-pandemic learning environment, stories about special education show no signs of slowing down — from whether schools will meet their legal obligations to provide makeup services for those missed during remote learning, to whether schools will have enough qualified staff to deliver those services.

Expanding coverage of special education could prove critical for the future of equity and access in our nation’s public schools, as studies show inclusive learning environments benefit all students.

Updated May 2021.


History and Background: Special Education

Prior to the 1970s, students with cognitive, physical or other disabilities were not guaranteed seats in public schools. Often, these children were relegated to state institutions where they received little to no educational instruction. Those who did enroll in public school were commonly segregated from their nondisabled peers, including attending classes in entirely separate buildings.


Glossary: Special Education


Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA): Passed in 1975, this federal law governs how public schools provide special education services to eligible children ages 3 to 21 with disabilities.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Covering Parent Activism and Engagement? Go Beyond Critical Race Theory
‘Sexy headlines’ about the latest education controversy often grab attention. Learn why reporters shouldn’t limit their coverage. Plus, get research and the history of parent engagement in education.

A new generation of parent activists has arrived, and its members are far more concerned with “ballot boxes, legislative agendas and school district policy priorities than bake sales,” according to a new report from the public policy think tank FutureEd.

National Seminar graphic

75th EWA National Seminar
Orlando • July 24-26, 2022

Celebrating 75 Years! 

As those in education and journalism work to recover from an extended pandemic, bringing together the community has never been more critical. The Education Writers Association’s 75th annual National Seminar will provide a long-awaited opportunity to gather in person for three days of training, networking, and inspiration. 

EWA 74th National Seminar  graphic

74th EWA National Seminar
Virtual, May 2-5, 2021

The Education Writers Association’s 74th National Seminar will focus on the theme of “Now What? Reporting on Education Amid Uncertainty.” Four afternoons of conversations, training and presentations will give attendees deeper understanding of these crises, as well as tools, skills and context to help them better serve their communities — and advance their careers. 

To be held May 2-5, 2021, the seminar will feature education newsmakers, including leaders, policy makers, researchers, practitioners and journalists. And it will offer practical data and other skills training. 

Three Story Ideas on Students With Disabilities in the COVID-19 Era

Three Story Ideas on Students With Disabilities in the COVID-19 Era

Schools opening their doors this fall are bringing back students with disabilities in the first wave of in-person learning. These students are prioritized because online learning isn’t meeting their particular needs, and parents working from home while supporting their children with disabilities face an additional hurdle: they aren’t professionals trained in alternative learning methods.  

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Why It’s So Hard to Report on Schools While Home-Schooling During a Pandemic
One journalist shares her struggle to report while guiding her son with autism through school

With a college kid rooting around the fridge for yet another meal, a husband conducting loud Zoom meetings about two feet from my desk, and a teen with autism freaking out from a lack of structure, 2020 is not shaping up to be a banner year for productivity as a freelance education writer.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Scramble for Effective Special Education in a Pandemic
Virtual learning often doesn't work for students with disabilities, experts say

The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has created reopening challenges for schools across the nation, but those challenges are magnified for the seven million students with disabilities whose educational plans and therapies often rely on the structure of a classroom setting and face-to-face services and lessons.


73rd EWA National Seminar

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. 

This multi-day conference is designed to give participants the skills, understanding, and inspiration to improve their coverage of education at all levels. It also will deliver a lengthy list of story ideas. We will offer numerous sessions on important education issues, as well as on journalism skills.

EWA Radio

When Public Dollars Pay for Private School
A new investigation sheds light on a lesser-known provision of federal law intended to ensure students with disabilities get the educational services they need
(EWA Radio: Episode 229)

In New York City, separated by just 15 blocks, two boys with similar learning disabilities struggled in public school classrooms. Under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), both were eligible to enroll in private school on the taxpayers’ dime as a remedy. But as a new investigation by The Teacher Project at Columbia University School of Journalism revealed, the financial status of the boys’ families played a big role in whether the district picked up the tab.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Finding the Details: How to Report on Seclusion and Restraint in Schools
News investigations put spotlight on troubling practices

When former WAMU education reporter Jenny Abamu first saw a seclusion room, she was shaken. 

She described the spaces she viewed in Fairfax County, Virginia: rooms built within rooms with no windows or ventilation, and discolorations where students had defecated on the floor. 

“Some of those kids were in that room over a hundred times in a school year,” Abamu recalled. “People thought it was normal. I was scared. I thought, ‘This is not normal.’” 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

‘An Ethical Obligation to Care’ When Reporting
'I try to write like people's lives depend on my words,' says Jenny Abamu.

While working as a journalist in New York City at the start of her career, Jenny Abamu experienced firsthand one of the challenges of daily breaking news coverage in a huge media market. Her job, at the television station NY1, required quickly moving from one assignment to the next, even on the same day.

At times she felt like part of the “media herd” chasing shiny objects, Abamu recalled recently to EWA. She felt she moved on from stories that deserved more depth and context.

“I felt like I was slipping in and out of people’s lives,” she said.


72nd EWA National Seminar
Baltimore • May 6-8, 2019

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. This year’s event in Baltimore, hosted by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, will explore an array of timely topics of interest to journalists from across the country, with a thematic focus on student success, safety, and well-being.


Hard to Read: How American Schools Fail Kids With Dyslexia
Single-Topic News or Feature: Broadcast

2017 EWA Award Finalist Banner image

About the Entry

There are proven ways to help people with dyslexia learn to read, and a federal law that’s supposed to ensure schools provide kids with help. But according to an audio documentary by Emily Hanford, public schools across the country are denying children proper treatment and often failing to identify them with dyslexia in the first place.

EWA 71st National Seminar Los Angeles graphic

71st EWA National Seminar
Los Angeles • May 16-18, 2018

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. This multiday conference provides participants with top-notch training delivered through dozens of interactive sessions on covering education from early childhood through graduate school. Featuring prominent speakers, engaging campus visits, and plentiful networking opportunities, this must-attend conference provides participants with deeper understanding of the latest developments in education, a lengthy list of story ideas, and a toolbox of sharpened journalistic skills.

Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Teachers Union Offers Support to Educators in Puerto Rico

Educators in Puerto Rico are getting support from the American Federation of Teachers in their efforts to thwart a plan to close schools as a way of helping the island deal with its financial crisis.

AFT president Randi Weingarten sent a letter in April to the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico urging them “not to make devastating funding cuts to the education system that serves the 379,000 students in Puerto Rico.” The federal fiscal board is overseeing Puerto Rico’s efforts to deal with bankruptcy and resolve its debt.

Betsy DeVos takes the oath of office.
EWA Radio

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

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? 

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. 

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas
Blog: The Educated Reporter

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.

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

Expert Reporter’s Tips: Covering Students with Special Needs

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.

Source: U.S. Department of Education
Blog: The Educated Reporter

Federal Government Gets Tougher on States Receiving Special Education Funds

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.