Special Education Enrollment, by Race/Ethnicity

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Learn More About Student Demographics

Measures of Student Demographics on Kidsdata.org
Kidsdata.org offers data on student demographics as numbers and percentages at the national, state, county, and school district levels:
Also see kidsdata.org’s indicators of Foster Youth in Public Schools and Homeless Public School Students, and, for data on LGBTQ students and more, kidsdata.org’s Demographics topic.

* Special education gives students with specific disabilities access to public education. Special education programs provide early intervention services for disabled children from birth to age 3, early childhood education from ages 3-5, and instruction in the least restrictive environment up to age 22. In California, children and youth ages 5-18 account for about 90% of students enrolled in special education; children ages 0-4 and young adults ages 19-22 account for about 10%.

† In California, students are eligible for free school meals if their family income falls below 130% of their federal poverty guideline (e.g., $34,060 for a family of four in 2020-21), they participate in the CalFresh or CalWORKS programs, they are eligible for the Migrant Education Program, they are homeless, or are foster youth. Students are eligible for reduced price school meals if their family income falls below 185% of their federal poverty guideline (e.g., $48,470 for a family of four in 2020-21).

‡ English Learners are students who speak a language other than English at home and lack English language speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills necessary to succeed in regular instructional programs.

§ The Migrant Education Program provides academic and supportive services to help students in migratory families overcome educational disruptions and other issues resulting from repeated moves. Students are eligible if they have moved in the previous three years due to migratory work in the agricultural, dairy, lumber, or fishing industries.
Student Demographics
Characteristics of Children with Special Needs
Family Income and Poverty
Access to Services for Children with Special Needs
Early Care and Education
Food Security
Disconnected Youth
Pupil Support Services
Impacts of Special Health Care Needs on Children and Families
School Climate
Foster Care
Why This Topic Is Important
Student demographic trends are useful for projecting potential needs and for planning school and community services. California's public school system is charged with serving an extremely large and diverse student body. The state has a minority white student body and the largest public school population in the nation (1). Approximately 6 in 10 California students face socioeconomic challenges related to family income, homelessness, living in a migratory household, or involvement with the foster care system; nearly 1 in 5 have limited English language proficiency; and about 1 in 8 have disabilities for which they receive special education services (2). Disadvantaged children typically need additional support to achieve their academic potential (3).
Student demographics also are important because the circumstances in which children are born and grow up strongly influence their well being and academic success (3). Decades of research show persistent academic disparities by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, and disability status (3). While California faces unique challenges given the size and complexity of its student body, all systems serving students—education and child care, health and mental health care, social services, community organizations, and others—must continue working together to ensure that all students have equitable opportunities to thrive.

For more information, see kidsdata.org’s Research & Links section. Also see kidsdata.org’s Demographics topic, which includes information about LGBTQ students and more.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Digest of education statistics: 2020. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20

2.  As cited on kidsdata.org, English Learners in public schools; Special education enrollment; Students eligible for free or reduced price school meals. (2022). California Department of Education.

3.  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Monitoring educational equity. National Academies Press. Retrieved from: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25389/monitoring-educational-equity
How Children Are Faring
The demographics of California's schoolchildren have changed in recent decades. In 1994, 37% of the state's 5.3 million K-12 students were Hispanic/Latino, 42% were white, and 9% were African American/black. In 2021, a majority (55%) of the 6 million students served were Hispanic/Latino, 22% were white, and 5% were African American/black. Consistent with statewide child population trends over this period, Asian and multiracial student representation increased, while percentages for other groups remained relatively steady or showed some decline overall.

More than 800,000 California children and youth ages 0-22—13% of all students—received special education services in 2020. Autism, learning disabilities, and speech/language impairments were the most common primary disabilities among students in special education in 2020, accounting for nearly three-quarters (74%) of special education enrollment. Statewide and in all counties with data, the share of special education students receiving services for autism has grown since 2011. In 2020, 16% of special education students in California were enrolled for autism, up from 10% in 2011. Over the same period, the proportion enrolled for learning disabilities decreased from 41% to 37% and the percentage enrolled for speech/language impairments fell from 25% to 21%.

In 2021, high-needs students—i.e., those who are eligible for free or reduced price school meals, are English Learners, or are foster youth—made up 62% of K-12 students statewide. Across local areas with data, percentages ranged from 30% to 82% for counties and from 3% to 100% for school districts.

More than 3.4 million California schoolchildren ages 5-17—59% of students—were eligible for free or reduced price school meals in 2021, up from 51% in 2007. Fewer than 400,000 students (7%) were eligible for reduced price meals, meaning their family incomes were between 130%-184% of their federal poverty guideline. By comparison, more than 3 million students (52%) were eligible for free meals in 2021, meaning either their family incomes were below 130% of their federal poverty guideline, they participated in the CalFresh or CalWORKS programs, they were eligible for the Migrant Education Program, they were homeless, or were foster youth.

In 2021, more than 46,000 California students were eligible for the Migrant Education Program (MEP), which provides educational and supportive services to students who have moved in the previous three years due to migratory work in the agricultural, dairy, lumber, or fishing industries. More than a quarter of students eligible for the MEP statewide were from three Central Valley counties: Fresno, Kern and Tulare.

Students with limited English language proficiency—English Learners—accounted for 18% California's student body in 2021, down from 25% in 1998. Spanish consistently has been the most common primary language among English Learners statewide and in virtually all counties with data. Following Spanish, the state's most common primary languages among English Learners are Vietnamese and Mandarin.
Policy Implications
California schools serve an increasingly diverse population of more than 6 million students, a majority of whom are socioeconomically disadvantaged (1). Many students also face challenges related to disabilities or chronic health conditions, mental health problems, limited English proficiency, and other issues (1, 2). Academic disparities by race/ethnicity, disability status, family financial resources, and English fluency have persisted for decades, statewide and nationally (3, 4). These disparities often continue into adulthood, reflected in disparate college completion rates and outcomes related to employment, income, and health (3, 4). While significant state and federal education reform efforts have taken place in recent years, and some progress has been made for students, substantial inequities remain (2, 5). Continued efforts are needed from multiple sectors to advance policies, investments, and services to ensure that all students, whatever their social position or circumstance, have equitable opportunities for educational success (2, 3, 5).

Policy and program options to support disadvantaged students and promote educational equity include:
  • Ensuring that all children have access to high-quality early childhood education and pre-kindergarten programs, which can help reduce disparities that begin before kindergarten and lay the foundation for later achievement (2, 6)
  • Creating a long-term funding solution for California's K-12 education system by increasing investments in the pipeline of new teachers, and continuing strategies to retain high-quality teachers; also, assuring an equitable distribution of experienced educators and other school staff (6, 7)
  • Ensuring that the state's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Plan, Local Control Funding Formula, and other recent reforms are achieving their intended goals of benefiting students with the greatest needs (6, 8)
  • Promoting strategies with demonstrated effectiveness in serving diverse English Learner (EL) populations, including adequate training for teachers and professionals who serve ELs, and working toward an improved accountability system that more effectively identifies and addresses EL needs (6, 9)
  • Continuing to strengthen service systems in child care, education, home visiting, health care, and other settings to meet the needs of children with disabilities, including effective screening and referral processes for early intervention and special education services (6, 10)
  • Investing in special education at a level that keeps up with demand, continues to improve the quality of services, and ensures that services are aligned with each student's Individualized Education Program (IEP), with appropriate adjustments for distance learning as needed (6, 10)
  • Supporting comprehensive, evidence-based systems to address students’ physical, emotional, behavioral, and other needs, with coordination between schools, health care providers, government agencies, and community organizations to provide easy access to services, including transportation and other support (3, 6)
  • Continuing to assure that schools provide students with safe and positive environments, access to supportive adults, and instruction in social-emotional skills; as part of this, ensuring that school staff receive ongoing training on trauma-informed, culturally-sensitive practices to promote social-emotional learning (3, 6)
  • Encouraging school discipline policies that are non-punitive, fair, clear, and aim to keep students in school when possible (3, 6)
  • Maintaining and strengthening social safety net programs, including free school meals for all K-12 students and nutrition programs for low-income children when school is out (e.g., during summer and winter breaks) or closed due to emergencies (11)
  • Continuing to address the unique needs of immigrant and migratory families through supportive policies and programs that are culturally-responsive, multi-generational, and empower parents to be partners in their children's education (12)
For more information, see kidsdata.org’s Research & Links section or visit Public Policy Institute of California. Also see kidsdata.org's Demographics topic, which includes information about LGBTQ students, and other topics under Education and Child Care.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  As cited on kidsdata.org, English Learners in public schools; Special education enrollment; Students eligible for free or reduced price school meals. (2022). California Department of Education.

2.  Hill, L., et al. (2021). California's future: Education. Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from: https://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/californias-future-education-january-2021.pdf

3.  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2019). Monitoring educational equity. National Academies Press. Retrieved from: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25389/monitoring-educational-equity

4.  Brighouse, H., et al. (2018). Outcomes and demographics of California's schools. Getting Down to Facts II. Retrieved from: https://gettingdowntofacts.com/publications/outcomes-and-demographics-californias-schools

5.  Learning Policy Institute. (2020). The federal role in advancing education equity and excellence. Retrieved from: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/advancing-education-2020-brief

6.  Children Now. (2021). 2021 pro-kid policy agenda for California. Retrieved from: https://www.childrennow.org/portfolio-posts/the-2021-pro-kid-policy-agenda

7.  Carver-Thomas, D., et al. (2021). California teachers and COVID-19: How the pandemic is impacting the teacher workforce. Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/california-covid-19-teacher-workforce-report

8.  California Department of Education. (2022). California ESSA consolidated state plan. Retrieved from: https://www.cde.ca.gov/re/es

9.  Californians Together. (2021). The accountability system English Learners deserve: Framework for an effective and coherent accountability system for ELs. Retrieved from: https://www.californianstogether.org/accountabilityframework

10.  California School Boards Association. (2019). The landscape of special education in California: A primer for board members. Retrieved from: https://www.csba.org/-/media/CSBA/Files/GovernanceResources/Reports/20190520_The-Landscape-of-Special-Education-in-California_A-primer-for-board-members.ashx?la=en&rev=87463ec45c2f411fa559d4574dc32347

11.  Free School Meals for All Act of 2021, Cal. S. B. 364 (2021-2022). Retrieved from: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=202120220SB364

12.  Hofstetter, J., & McHugh, M. (2021). California's immigrant and U.S.-born parents of young and elementary-school-age children: Key sociodemographic characteristics. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/publications/mpi_nciip_parents-children-0-4-and-5-10-ca-2021_final.pdf
Websites with Related Information
Key Reports and Research
County/Regional Reports
More Data Sources For Student Demographics