Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996
Trends in Special Education Populations and Financing Needs
The number of students served by special education has increased steadily from 3.7 million in 1976–775,6 to 5.3 million children and youth ages 3 through 21 being served in 1993–94.7 Based on sociodemographic variables present in the overall school population, continued growth in the special education population is anticipated.
Since the passage of Public Law 94-142 in 1975, states and localities have been greatly aided in their ability to fund an expanding special education population by a substantial decrease in the size of the school-age population. Total national K–12 enrollment in public schools dropped from 43.5 million students in 1977 to around 39 million in 1982 and then held steady through 1986.6 This decline reduced the fiscal pressures associated with supporting regular education programs and probably reduced the rate of growth of special education populations.
The situation is changing. Beginning in the mid-1980s, overall student enrollment has increased each year, rising to 44 million students in 1994 and projected to rise to 49 million by 2002.8 This growth creates escalating costs in both general and special education programs and mounting infrastructure requirements for facilities, equipment, and personnel.9 At the same time, fiscal stress across the full spectrum of social services is widespread, generating pressures on federal, state, and local governments. The economic outlook suggests a minimum of new services and a continued restructuring of current programs in an effort to achieve greater budget efficiencies.10
The special education population is also expected to continue to grow as a result of (1) increasing numbers of young children eligible for services following the enactment of the 1986 Amendments, which added the Preschool Grants Program and the Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities Program to the IDEA; (2) the addition in 1990 of two new disability categories (autism and traumatic brain injury) extending special education eligibility; and (3) the rising rates of sociodemographic indicators present among the new school-age population, which often act as predictors of disabilities in children and youth.11-13 This population is expected to include increasing numbers of students with high-risk characteristics that are related to learning problems and developmental disabilities, including poverty,14 low birth weight,11 substance abuse,15-17 and HIV infection.18 Arguably, continued expansion of the special education population may also be driven by such general education reforms as raised academic standards.