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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

CHILD INDICATORS: Children in Special Education
Eugene M. Lewit Linda Schuurmann Baker

Geographic Variation in Identification

Evidence of variability in the proportion of children served in special education programs is found in Figure 2, which shows for each state the proportion of children up to age 21 receiving special education. Although in the 1993–94 school year 8% of children were served in federally funded special education programs, there was significant variation among the states in the proportion of children participating in special education programs. On the extremes, 11% of children up to age 21 in Massachusetts participated in special education programs, while in Hawaii 5% were enrolled in such programs.

Several reasons have been postulated for these differences. Because education is largely a state concern, states differ in their implementation of the special education laws on factors such as operational definitions of disabilities, referral practices, testing guidelines, the composition of evaluation committees, the strength of special interest groups, the availability and cost of services, and the acceptability of particular classification categories.16 Because the federal government leaves control of eligibility decisions to the states, states define for themselves which children are eligible for special education services and fit into particular disability categories. Thus, a child who might be identified as both eligible for and requiring special education in one state might not be identified that way in another.17 These practical differences in implementation are likely to account for a large portion of the variability in the identification of special education children and are to be expected given the decentralization of education in the United States. (See the article by Reschly in this journal issue for further discussion of identification practices.)

Other factors are likely to add to the variation. Differences in funding formulas may play a part. If local education departments are given set amounts of special education funding by the state each year, they may have an incentive to identify children who can use the resources that are earmarked for that purpose. In Illinois, for example, state special education dollars can be spent only on special education children.18 Another possibility is that there may be actual differences in the populations of children among states. Many disabilities are related to early health problems such as low birth weight, prenatal substance use, or unsafe or poor living conditions. Therefore, areas of the country that have higher rates of those health and safety problems may have higher concentrations of disabled children.19

The variation in actual identification rates of children needing special education is probably a result of some combination of all of these influences, but the relative importance of the different factors is unknown.