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NEA Issue Explainer

Special Education

All students deserve an education that sparks their curiosity and desire to learn. Special education fits our most vulnerable students’ unique needs.
Student with rainbow pain on hands
Published: December 2, 2021
This issue explainer originally appeared on

Public schools across the nation provide special education services to more than 7 million students with disabilities—about 14 percent of all public school students.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reflects the federal government’s commitment to provide a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities and pay 40 percent of the additional cost, but that commitment remains unfulfilled.

The federal share of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has fallen to less than 16 percent.

Help all students get the support and tools they need for learning.

Key Facts About Funding IDEA

Public School Students


Public schools across the country today provide special education services to more than 7 million youngsters or 14 percent of public school students.
Federal Government's Commitment


The federal law has always included a commitment to pay 40 percent of the average per student cost for every special education student. In the 2019 fiscal year, the federal government provided less than half of the full funding level for states.
Federal share of the average per student cost


The federal share of the average per student cost was 13 percent in the 2020 fiscal year, the smallest share since the 2000 fiscal year.
Funding Gap

$23.6 billion

In the school year 2020-21, the federal appropriation was $23.6 billion less than full funding, which states and districts had to cover.
Filling the Gap

A burden on local communities

This shortfall creates a burden on local communities and denies full opportunity to all students—with and without disabilities.

A History of Progress



President Nixon signs the Rehabilitation Act, which replaces the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, to emphasize services to expand federal responsibilities and training programs for individuals with disabilities.


President Ford signs the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The law guarantees access to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment to every child with a disability. The law promises that the federal government will cover 40 percent of the extra cost of special education.


The Individuals with Disabilities Act replaces the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The law includes a requirement that public schools create an Individualized Education Program that specifies the services to be provided and how often, as well as accommodations and modifications to be made. Pres. George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Speak Up For Students and Public Schools

When we act together and lift our voices together in unison, we can improve the lives of children.
Members march down the street wearing red and carrying signs.

Together we're stronger. Together we're heard.

You belong in the movement! Join today to belong to the movement of educators and school staff fighting for the pay and working conditions we all deserve.

Keeping the Promise of Quality Public Education

The Oregon Education Association (OEA) is a union committed to the cause of providing the basic right of great public education to every student. OEA represents about 41,000 educators working in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 public schools and community colleges. OEA’s membership includes licensed teachers and specialists, classified/education support professionals (ESPs), community college faculty, retired educators, and student members. OEA members also belong to the 3.2 million members of the National Education Association (NEA).