Federal law, as well as laws in many states, enshrines the provision of a free and appropriate public school education for eligible students with disabilities (SWD), ages 3–21. Eligible children and youth are those identified by a team of professionals as having a disability that adversely affects academic performance and as being in need of special education and related services.
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 appropriations or state education spending. Regardless of federal and state special education funding, however, local communities under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (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.
The population of students with disabilities served in the United States has grown at nearly twice the rate of the general education population. During the twenty-five year period between 1980 and 2005, this student population increased by 37 percent, while the general education population grew by only 20 percent. Further, today students with disabilities account for about 13 percent of the total education population, up from about 10 percent in the 1980s. The sudden increase in this demographic of the student population 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 preschool and early intervention services. Another reason for the increase is that Congress widened the definition of "disabled" under federal law in 1997 to include the population of "developmentally delayed" children ages three to nine.