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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


As this journal issue goes to press, the system of special education that has developed over the past several decades is under attack. Among the system's critics are those who advocate for the inclusion of disabled children, principally children with mental retardation, in mainstream education.24 These critics focus on the stigmatization associated with some separate, special education programs and on the benefits of having children with mental retardation associate with nondisabled classmates. Fiscal considerations also play a role in the debate about special education. States and most local school districts operate with limited budgets. On average, the per-pupil cost of special education is more than twice the cost of regular education. Thus, the continual increase in the number of children in special education programs strains school budgets and decreases the amount of money available for regular education.

The processes of identifying, counting, and classifying children in special education have also come under increased scrutiny. It is argued that some disability categories are bogus and that instances of over-identification of children as disabled are frequent, particularly because the most common special education category, specific learning disability, could fit nearly anyone having some problems in school.12 It is not possible to determine from the annual OSEP count data reviewed in this article if children are over-identified. However, the variation in the numbers and rates of children served over time and across different jurisdictions is substantial and not well understood.

Even the concept of categorizing disabilities has been called into question. The Department of Education has recommended that, in the next reauthorization of the IDEA, a definition of disability similar to the definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act be adopted. Under this definition, a student would be eligible for special education if he or she "has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits the major life activity of learning and who by reason thereof requires special education."25 Although this definition may limit labeling of children by category, it will be subject to the vagueness and subjectivity that are cause for concern with the SLD and other categories today. Some advocates, such as the Learning Disabilities Association of America, argue that using a general category could result in "generic special education in regular education classrooms" and funding changes, which could "deny students with specific learning disabilities an appropriate education."26

Perhaps most problematic from a monitoring standpoint is the lack of national data on the epidemiology of specific disorders and their prevalence in the population. The OSEP count data are designed to reflect only state counts of the number of children served, not the number of children who might benefit from special education or the number with specific disabilities who are enrolled in appropriate educational programs. Moreover, national population surveys that rely on parents' reports of specific educational problems and placements have weaknesses. In a field where educators find it difficult to consistently and uniformly identify and classify children with learning problems, it is difficult to put much credence in parents' differentiation among special education categories on a checklist. At best, the CPS, NHIS/CH, and other national survey data reflect what parents think their children's problems may be and whether they are receiving services for the problems identified.

Because the purpose of the primary OSEP data collection system is to count the number of children in special education programs being served with federal funds, the system, unless fundamentally altered, will continue to be unable to provide national information for policymakers and educators on the appropriateness of services delivered and other complex questions. OSEP does collect other data, such as the National Education Longitudinal Survey and the National Longitudinal Transition Study of Special Education Students, which attempt to answer those types of questions, and such efforts are useful for limited purposes. However, increasing expenditures to collect additional data on the prevalence of disabilities or to perform more or better state program evaluations might assure that disabled children are getting the services they need and that children in regular education are not being shortchanged by attention to and funding for special education.