Background & Analysis

The Federal Education Budget Project’s background and analysis pages provide detailed information on federal PreK-12 and higher education programs and spending.

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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Overview

It is well-established that special education enrollment and aggregate costs have increased markedly in recent years. At the same time, there have not been proportionate increases in federal special education (IDEA Part B) appropriations or state education spending. Regardless of federal and state special education funding, however, local communities under IDEA must provide a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment to children with disabilities, no matter how high or low those costs are in the case of an individual child or how high they are for a group of children with disabilities. As a result, special education spending by local districts has consumed a large portion of increased education funding nationally -- 40 percent of the increase by one estimate -- since the late 1960s.

Larger Population of Students with Disabilities

The population of students served under IDEA has grown at nearly twice the rate of the general education population. During the twenty-five year period between 1980 and 2005, the IDEA population increased by 37 percent, while the general education population grew by only 20 percent. Moreover, students served under IDEA today account for about 13 percent of the total education population, up from about 10 percent in the 1980s.

The sudden increase in the percentage of the student population served by IDEA can be attributed to multiple factors. A significant portion of the increase in special education enrollment can be attributed to greater identification of students with disabilities from birth to age five and these students’ participation in IDEA preschool and early intervention services. Another reason for the increase is that Congress widened the definition of "disabled" under IDEA in 1997 to include the population of "developmentally delayed" children ages three to nine.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Rising Special Education Spending

Primarily because of the quickly expanding population of children with disabilities, special education spending has increased at a much faster rate than general elementary and secondary education spending. During the 1999-2000 school year, the United States spent $50 billion on special education "support" services and an additional $27.3 billion on regular education for disabled students ($77.3 billion in total).1 Special education support costs accounted for 12.4 percent of the $404.4 billion total spending on elementary and secondary education. With regular education expenses included, students with disabilities accounted for 19.1 percent of total national elementary and secondary education spending in 1999-2000, an increase of 13 percent from the 1977-78 school year.

Rising enrollment, not rising per pupil costs, has been the primary driver of special education spending. It is true that service costs associated with some high-need disabilities have increased. However, the main expansion of the children with disabilities population has been in the lower-cost developmental disability categories. The annualized growth rate of spending per pupil for children with disabilities between 1985-86 and 1999-2000 was 1.7 percent after inflation, lower than the 2 percent growth rate in spending per pupil for all students.

Declining State Support for Special Education

In general, state contributions to special education spending have not kept pace with escalating special education expenditures. In 1987, state funding accounted for 56 percent of special education spending and local funding accounted for only 36 percent.2 In 1999-2000, the average state share of special education spending had dropped to 45 percent, and the average local contribution had risen to 46 percent, based on data from 39 states.3

Source: Center for Special Education Finance

Local school districts have had trouble covering such a high percentage of the $50 billion spent on special education services. Heavily impacted districts with a disproportionate number of high-need, high-cost disabled students struggle the most, particularly if the district is small or rural. Of all disabled students, approximately one-half of one percent, or around 330,000 students, require more than $100,000 in special education services per year. Given that federal and state funding formulas do not take the distribution of high-cost disabilities into account, districts with concentrations of these high-need students have much more substantial spending obligations.

The 2004 reauthorization of IDEA tried to alleviate the local fiscal strains associated with IDEA by allowing states to reserve 10 percent of their Part B "other state activities" funds (around 1 to 1.05 percent of the total grant) for "risk pools," or pools of funding specifically set aside for the services of high-need children. States can distribute funding from these risk pools to districts with high-cost students. In addition, some states have created their own "extraordinary cost" accounts with state funding to provide additional support to heavily impacted districts, although funding of those accounts is unsteady and often cut or eliminated in the case of a budget shortfall.

  1. 1. The most recent cost figures available are from a Center for Special Education Finance study of the 1999-2000 school year. Most states do not keep annual data on the isolated cost of special education programs.
  2. 2. See "Patterns in special education service delivery and cost," (M. T. Moore, E. W. Strang, M. Schwartz, & M. Braddock, 1988)
  3. 3. There is wide variation in state and local support, with the state contribution ranging from 3 percent in Oklahoma to 90 percent in Wyoming, and the local contribution ranging from 0 percent in Wyoming to 80 percent in Arizona.
Published Apr 25 2014 15:47