Chris Schulz Published

Special Education Numbers Increasing Despite Overall Enrollment Decline

Wooden classroom desks in close up with no students.Adobe Stock

A new analysis of special education data hopes to advance understanding and solutions for students with the greatest need. 

During the past five years, enrollment in West Virginia’s public schools has declined by nearly 10 percent. In 2017, 270,613 students were enrolled in West Virginia public schools. By the fall of 2023, that number had dropped to 245,047.

However, educators like Rachel Brown say during the same period the numbers of special education students have gone up.

“Everyone’s overworked because our numbers keep rising,” she said. “And our county has done a lot of cuts this year, because our enrollment numbers have gone down, but we couldn’t cut. Our numbers have gone up.”

Brown is the intellectual disabilities and autism (ID/AU) special education curriculum specialist for Kanawha County Schools. She oversees more than 60 self-contained classrooms across the county, where students with the most complex needs, who require the most support, are placed. 

The increase is not unique to Kanawha County, the state’s largest school district. 

“It’s increasing everywhere,” Brown said. “I was discussing with a specialist yesterday. Ten years ago, she was in a rural part of the county. And I was like, I bet you had a sweet, tiny little classroom of like, five, because our maximum self-contained is 12. And now in the same location, we have two self-contained classrooms at this school, and they’re both full. So that’s a huge change in over a decade.” 

A new analysis from the Institute for Policy Research and Public Affairs at West Virginia University’s Rockefeller School of Policy and Politics is quantifying some of those changes.  

“In West Virginia, it is a problem of some magnitude,” said Samuel Workman, director of the institute. “We’re talking between, depending on the year you look, anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 students. So it constitutes about one in five in the current year of students, 20 percent of our students. That’s a great number of our young folks who are on independent educational plans.”

A line graph shows a steady increase in IDEA plans between 2017 and 2022. Below, a bar graph shows percent changes in IDEA plans from 2018 to 2022, with the largest increase of 1.5 percent occurring in 2020.
Graphs display the increase in IDEA plans in West Virginia over the past five years.

Credit: Samuel Workman/West Virginia University

Workman and his team analyzed the last five years of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act data (IDEA), from the West Virginia Department of Education. The report compiled a data set from 2017 to 2023 addressing the demographics, geography and trends in independent educational plans (IEP), in the state.

“States will monitor things like how often these kids are in normal classrooms, or standard classrooms, I should say, any disciplinary actions taken against these children, and sort of assessing performance over time, both for their sake and relative to other students,” Workman said.

Workman’s study shows the breadth of conditions – both physical and developmental – covered by IEPs. They run the gamut from difficulty with vision or hearing, to psychological issues.

The largest category is now “specific learning disabilities,” which Workman said the federal government defines as psychological problems with processing language. But categories like autism and developmental delay have witnessed increases, especially in recent years. 

“Which I understand to be associated with a whole host of environmental problems in children, substance abuse in a home being one,” Workman said. “But those are the sorts of things we are seeing at least at present time, explosion is probably too strong of a word, but certainly sharp upticks in the number of children categorized within those disability categories versus the traditional sort of hearing disabilities.”

The analysis also reveals interesting demographic distributions, including the fact that a near two-thirds majority of students on IEPs are male.

Brown said her experience aligns with that finding, as does research into the diagnosing of the condition.

“We do have a higher rate of boys in our autism classrooms,” Brown said. “The research [shows] females are able to mask better, so they’re not identified as frequently or as often early on. Even with ADHD, boys are often identified before girls.”

Two line graphs show the change over a five year period, from 2017 to 2022, of IEPs for males and females in West Virginia. The female line graph, on the right, shows a steady increase while the male line graph shows a sharp increase around 2020. Below, a bar graph shows a comparison of male and female percentages of IEPs over the same five year period. Females, in yellow, are consistently about half the number of males, in blue.
A graph from Workman’s IDEA data analysis shows the discrepancy in IEPs between male and female students.

Credit: Samuel Workman/West Virginia University

More data and study is needed to better understand such discrepancies, as well as the relationship between the various factors driving the trends, including the opioid crisis and lack of access to resources like early childhood interventions. 

Workman credits the state’s Department of Education for making the data easier to access. He hopes his study helps to make it easier to use and understand and ultimately bring more eyes to the issue.

“The way I organize data is not the way a public health person would organize the data, it’s not the way an education professional organizers data,” Workman said. “Continuing to work to make that data as integratable as possible with our public health systems and our education systems will work wonders in understanding the nature of the problem, what we’re dealing with.” 

Workman said with one in five students having IEPs, the far-reaching impact of education – from the immediate impact of each student to the broader implications for workforce development and businesses – makes a better understanding of special education needs imperative.

“The degree to which we can better understand these children, help them to the extent possible to lead sort of productive, rich lives, both at home and at their place of work and all this sort of stuff, the better off the state’s going to be. So it’s a real problem with a real need for lots of eyes,” he said.

Brown agrees.

“I always have hope, that’s the best part of being a special educator, you always have to hope,” she said. “I’m hoping that this will help make special education a priority, and just education in general a priority in our state.”