The Myth of the Special Education Burden

Executive Summary

Over the past thirty years, school property taxes in Pennsylvania have increased at a rate more than twice the concurrent rate of inflation. Local school boards—those elected officials solely responsible for these rapid tax increases—are quick to blame the state for failing to cover increasing costs, particularly those associated with special education students. But is the special education burden really as heavy as the education establishment claims?

Much of the special education funding debate draws its energy from a widely shared premise: that schools are increasingly swamped with disabled children who are diverting scarce resources away from other students. This policy brief analyzed this premise and found that between 1976-77 and 1998-99:

  • The percentage of K-12 students in America identified as needing special education rose from 8.3 percent to 11.8 percent.
  • Almost the entire increase in special education enrollments can be attributed to a rise in one category, called “specific learning disability,” which more than tripled from 1.8 percent to 6 percent.
  • All other categories of special education combined (mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance, deafness, blindness, autism, and head injury) have declined from 6.5 percent to 5.8 percent.

The conclusion is that there has been no large secular increase in the true incidence of learning problems since the mid-1970s, but rather an increase in the more subjective identification of students with those problems. The evidence suggests that schools have the same distribution of students with learning difficulties that they used to have, yet have received significantly more resources to educate them. Therefore, any special education or school funding reforms should consider these important facts.