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- Definition: Number of public school students receiving special education services (e.g., in 2019, 795,047 California students were enrolled in special education).Percentage of public school students receiving special education services (e.g., in 2019, 12.8% of California students were enrolled in special education).
- Data Source: California Dept. of Education, DataQuest & Special Education Division custom tabulation; National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics (Jun. 2020).
- Footnote: Years presented are the final year of a school year (e.g., 2018-19 is shown as 2019). California data include children and youth ages 0-22, whereas data for the U.S. include those ages 3-21. School district-level data reflect the district of residence, not the district in which services are accessed. The notation S refers to percentages that have been suppressed because there were fewer than 20 special education enrollees, and to numbers that have been suppressed in order to protect confidentiality. N/A means that data are not available or the percentage was far above average for that year (more than 3 standard deviations above the mean).
- 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 LGBT students and more, kidsdata.org’s Demographics topic.
- Total school enrollment overall and by race/ethnicity
- Students receiving special education services* overall, by primary disability, and by race/ethnicity
- High-need students—i.e., those who are eligible for free or reduced price school meals, are English Learners, or are foster youth—as reported in the Unduplicated Pupil Count
- Students eligible for free or reduced price school meals† (FRPM), along with students by FRPM eligibility status (eligible for free meals, eligible for reduced price meals, and not eligible)
- English Learners‡ (ELs), students by EL Status (Spanish-speaking ELs, ELs with a primary language other than Spanish, and non-ELs), and ELs by most common primary languages statewide
- Students eligible for the Migrant Education Program§
* 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., $33,475 for a family of four in 2019-20), 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., $47,638 for a family of four in 2019-20).
‡ 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. Student 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
- Public School Enrollment
- Special Education Enrollment
- High-Need Students (Unduplicated Pupil Count)
- Students Eligible for Free or Reduced Price School Meals
- English Learners in Public Schools
- Students Eligible for Migrant Education Program
- Characteristics of Children with Special Needs
- Children with Special Health Care Needs
- Children with Major Disabilities
- Child Population (Regions of 10,000 Residents or More)
- Child Population, by Race/Ethnicity (Regions of 10,000 Residents or More)
- Children in Rural and Urban Areas (California & U.S. Only)
- Child Population, by County
- Projected Child Population, by County
- Highest Level of Parent Education, by Child's Grade Level
- Youth Sexual Orientation, by Grade Level
- Transgender Youth, by Grade Level
- Family Income and Poverty
- Children in Poverty, by Race/Ethnicity
- Children Living in Areas of Concentrated Poverty
- Children in Deep Poverty
- Income Level for Children Relative to Poverty
- Income Level for Children Relative to Poverty, by Family Type
- Children Living in Low-Income Working Families
- Children in Poverty - Supplemental Poverty Measure (California & U.S. Only)
- Children in Poverty - California Poverty Measure
- Children in Deep Poverty - California Poverty Measure
- Poverty-Reducing Effects of the Social Safety Net - California Poverty Measure, by Program Type and Poverty Level (California Only)
- Families Living Below Self-Sufficiency Standard
- Children Participating in CalWORKs
- Access to Services for Children with Special Needs
- Early Care and Education
- Young Children Whose Parents Read with Them, by Frequency
- Children Ages 3-5 Enrolled in Preschool or Kindergarten
- Children Ages 3-5 Enrolled in Preschool or Kindergarten (Regions of 10,000 Residents or More)
- 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 planning school and community services. California's public school system is charged with serving an extremely large and diverse student body. The state has the largest public school population and the only minority white student body 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 more than 1 in 8 have disabilities for which they receive special education services (2). Disadvantaged children typically need additional support to achieve their academic potential (1, 3, 5). For example, programs providing free or reduced price school meals, migrant education supports, and other services offer critical assistance to students in need.Student demographics also are important because the circumstances in which children are born and grow up strongly influence their well being and academic success (4, 5). Decades of research show persistent academic achievement gaps by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, and disability status (1, 3, 5). 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 LGBT students and more.
Sources for this narrative:
1. 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
2. As cited on kidsdata.org, Students eligible for free or reduced price school meals; English Learners in public schools; Special education enrollment. (2020). California Department of Education.
3. Horowitz, S. H., et al. (2017). The state of learning disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. National Center for Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from: https://www.ncld.org/research/state-of-learning-disabilities
4. Arkin, E., et al. (Eds.). (2014). Time to act: Investing in the health of our children and communities. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America. Retrieved from: https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/research/2014/01/recommendations-from-the-rwjf-commission-to-build-a-healthier-am.html
5. O'Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S. (2016). Equality and quality in U.S. education: Systemic problems, systemic solutions. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from: https://www.air.org/resource/equality-and-quality-u-s-education-systemic-problems-systemic-solutions
- 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 2020, a majority (55%) the 6.1 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 American and multiracial student representation increased, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander student representation remained relatively steady, and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students declined.
Nearly 800,000 California children and youth ages 0-22—13% of all students—received special education services in 2019. Autism, learning disabilities, and speech/language impairments were the most common primary disabilities among students in special education in 2019, 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 2019, 15% 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 38% and the percentage enrolled for speech/language impairments fell from 25% to 21%.
In 2019, 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 63% of K-12 students statewide. Across local areas with data, percentages ranged from 30% to 81% for counties and from less than 3% and to more than 99% for school districts.
More than 59% of California schoolchildren ages 5-17—over 3.5 million students—were eligible for free or reduced price school meals in 2020, up from 51% in 2007. Fewer than 500,000 students (8%) 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, 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 2019, just over 47,000 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 lived in three Central Valley counties: Fresno, Kern and Tulare.
Students with limited English language proficiency—English Learners—accounted for 19% California's student body in 2020, 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, limited English proficiency, and other issues (1). Academic achievement gaps by race/ethnicity, disability status, family financial resources, and English fluency have persisted for decades, statewide and nationally (2, 3, 4). In adulthood, these gaps translate to disparities in college completion, employment, and income (2). While significant state and federal education reform efforts have taken place in recent years, and some progress has been made in reducing these gaps, substantial inequities remain (3). Policymakers and educators have a role in addressing these disparities and ensuring that all students, whatever their social position or circumstance, have equitable opportunities for educational success.
Policy and program options to support disadvantaged students and promote educational equity include:
For more information, see kidsdata.org’s Research & Links section, or visit Public Policy Institute of California and Getting Down to Facts. Also see kidsdata.org's Demographics topic and topics under Education and Child Care.
- 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, 5)
- Creating a long-term funding solution for California's K-12 education system, and ensuring an equitable distribution of qualified teachers and other school staff (3, 5)
- Ensuring that the state's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Plan, Local Control Funding Formula, and new education standards are implemented effectively in every district and school (3, 4, 6)
- Promoting strategies with demonstrated effectiveness in serving diverse English Learner (EL) populations, including adequate training for teachers and professionals who serve ELs, increasing alignment across early childhood education and primary grade systems, and effectively engaging families of ELs (7, 8)
- Continuing to support schools and communities in creating safe, positive environments and developing comprehensive, evidence-based school systems to address students' physical, emotional, behavioral, and other needs (4, 5)
- Encouraging school discipline policies that are non-punitive, fair, and aim to keep students in school when possible (5, 9)
- Continuing to strengthen strategies 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 (9)
- Addressing inefficiencies in special education financing and delivery, improving coherence between special education and general education, and working toward funding and accountability systems that serve students with disabilities more effectively (3, 9)
- Maintaining and strengthening social safety net programs, including free and reduced price school meals, and increasing enrollment among eligible children; as part of this, continuing efforts to make it simpler and less stigmatizing for students and families to receive free or reduced price school breakfast and lunch (5, 10)
- Continuing to promote supportive policies toward immigrant and migratory families, recognizing the potential for federal action to negatively affect immigrant students and families (11)
Sources for this narrative:
1. As cited on kidsdata.org, Students eligible for free or reduced price school meals; Special education enrollment; English Learners in public schools. (2020). California Department of Education.
2. 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
3. Warren, P., et al. (2020). California's future: K-12 education. Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from: https://www.ppic.org/publication/californias-future-k-12-education
4. O'Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S. (2016). Equality and quality in U.S. education: Systemic problems, systemic solutions. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from: https://www.air.org/resource/equality-and-quality-u-s-education-systemic-problems-systemic-solutions
5. Children Now. (2020). 2020 California children's report card: A survey of kids' well-being and roadmap for the future. Retrieved from: https://www.childrennow.org/portfolio-posts/20-report-card
6. California Department of Education. (2019). California ESSA consolidated state plan. Retrieved from: https://www.cde.ca.gov/re/es
7. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Promoting the educational success of children and youth learning English: Promising futures. Retrieved from: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24677/promoting-the-educational-success-of-children-and-youth-learning-english
8. Sandoval-Gonzalez, A. (2017). Every Student Succeeds Act: A vision to address the needs of California's youngest learners. Californians Together & Advancement Project. Retrieved from: https://californianstogether.app.box.com/s/4sivavyxitkxchz36xjzbic3itxr64s9
9. California Statewide Task Force on Special Education. (2015). One system: Reforming education to serve all students. Retrieved from: https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/sr/taskforce2015.asp
10. California Food Policy Advocates. (2017). School meal access and participation: California statewide summary 2015-16. Retrieved from: https://cfpa.net/school-meal-analysis-2015-16
11. Children's Partnership, & California Immigrant Policy Center. (2018). Healthy mind, healthy future: Promoting the mental health and wellbeing of children in immigrant families in California. Retrieved from: https://childrenspartnership.org/research/healthy-mind-healthy-future-promoting-the-mental-health-and-wellbeing-of-children-in-immigrant-families
- Websites with Related Information
- American Institutes for Research: English Learners
- California Dept. of Education: Specialized Programs
- Californians Together: Championing the Success of English Learners
- Child Trends: Race Equity
- Food Research and Action Center
- IDEA Partnership. National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
- National Center for Learning Disabilities
- Opportunity Insights
- Public Policy Institute of California: K-12 Education
- WestEd: English Learners
- Key Reports and Research
- After School Programs and Meals: Opportunities to Support Working Families in California. (2018). California Food Policy Advocates.
- Assessing ESSA: Missed Opportunities for Students with Disabilities. (2018). National Center for Learning Disabilities. Turner, M., et al.
- California ESSA Consolidated State Plan. (2020). California Dept. of Education.
- California's Future: Education. (2021). Public Policy Institute of California. Hill, L., et al.
- Equality and Quality in U.S. Education: Systemic Problems, Systemic Solutions. (2016). American Institutes for Research. O'Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S.
- Free School Meals for All Here to Stay in California. (2021). EdSource. Tadayon, A.
- Fulfilling the Promise of IDEA. (2018). American Institutes for Research.
- Getting Down to Facts II. Policy Analysis for California Education.
- Monitoring Educational Equity. (2019). National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
- Opportunities for Improving Programs and Services for Children with Disabilities. (2018). National Academies Press. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
- Racial Inequality and Education: Patterns and Prospects for the Future. (2017). The Educational Forum.
- School Resources and the Local Control Funding Formula: Is Increased Spending Reaching High-Need Students? (2019). Public Policy Institute of California. Lafortune, J.
- Significant Disproportionality in Special Education: Current Trends and Actions for Impact (2020). National Center for Learning Disabilities.
- Student Achievement Analysis: Results of the 2018-19 Smarter Balanced Assessments. (2019). Education Trust–West.
- Surveying the Landscape of California’s English Learner Reclassification Policy. (2021). Public Policy Institute of California. Hill, L., et al.
- The Accountability System English Learners Deserve: Framework for An Effective and Coherent Accountability System for ELs. (2021). Californians Together.
- The Connections Between Food Insecurity, the Federal Nutrition Programs, and Student Behavior. (2018). Food Research and Action Center.
- The Landscape of Special Education in California: A Primer for Board Members. (2019). California School Boards Association. Cichy Grady, M., et al.
- The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth. (2019). National Academies Press. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
- County/Regional Reports
- 2021 California County Scorecard of Children's Well-Being. Children Now.
- Annual Report on the Conditions of Children in Orange County. Orange County Children's Partnership.
- Collaborating for Equity: A Scan of the Los Angeles Educational Ecosystem. (2015). Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Brown University. Potochnik, T., & Romans, A. N.
- Community Health Improvement Plan for Los Angeles County 2015-2020. Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Health.
- Orange County Community Indicators Report. Orange County Community Indicators Project.
- Pathway to Progress: Indicators of Young Child Well-Being in Los Angeles County. First 5 LA.
- Santa Clara County Children's Data Book. Santa Clara County Office of Education, et al.
- More Data Sources For Student Demographics
- California School Dashboard. California Dept. of Education.
- Children of Immigrants. Urban Institute.
- Childstats.gov. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics.
- DataQuest. California Dept. of Education.
- Education Data Partnership (Ed-Data) California Dept. of Education, et al.
- Local Control Funding Formula Reports. California Dept. of Education.
- Migration Data Hub. Migration Policy Institute.
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