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Report Highlights Unequal Access to Special Education Services

Resource June 1, 2023

Recently, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) released “State[s] of Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education: Looking at Equity,” a report that finds that not all young children with disabilities have equal access to essential services at a young age.

This state-by-state report investigates access to Early Intervention (EI) for children birth to age 3 and Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) for children ages 3 to 5 not yet in kindergarten in the 2020-2021 school year along the lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, race/ethnicity, gender, and state variation.

Background on Young Children in IDEA

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), last reauthorized in 2004, ensures that students with disabilities are provided a free and appropriate public education tailored to their individual needs. While IDEA provides services for children and youth ages 0 to 21, provisions for young children are within Parts B and C. 

Part B, Section 619 authorizes supplementary grants to states for preschool programs serving children with disabilities ages three through five. Under Section 619, 3- to 5-year-olds are eligible for ECSE if an evaluation determines they have a disability. It is important to note that while states and public agencies must follow federal law and guidance, they can make decisions about who is eligible for services, including how to define disability (i.e. some states consider developmental delays as an eligibility criterion while others do not).

  • Nationwide, 5% of 3-and 4-year-olds received ECSE.
  • However, this ranged from a high of 14% in Wyoming to 3% in Alabama, Georgia, Montana, North Carolina, and Texas. Wyoming was the only state to provide ECSE to more than 10% of 3-and 4-year-olds.

Part C authorizes federal funding for EI services to infants and toddlers with disabilities ages birth to three years. Infants and toddlers are eligible for EI if they are experiencing a developmental delay or a diagnosed physical or mental condition with a high probability of resulting in a developmental delay. In some states, children qualify if they are “at-risk” for a developmental delay. 

  • Nationwide, 3% of children under the age of 3 received EI services.
  • However this ranged from a high of 10% in Massachusetts to less than 1% in Arkansas and Hawaii. Only 6 states provided EI services to more than 5% of infants and toddlers.

Key findings include:

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in fewer children receiving EI and ECSE services. Between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020, 63,000 fewer children under age 3 received EI and 77,000 fewer 3- & 4-year-olds received ECSE.
  2. There are variations in EI and ECSE across states – including federal funding, the percentage of children receiving services, where children receive services, disability classification and eligibility, transitions between EI and ECSE, suspension of children with disabilities, and children’s outcomes. View state profiles here
  3. The percentage of children served in EI and ECSE increases with state median income. Young children in states with the lowest incomes are the least likely to receive IDEA services. 
  4. Asian, Hispanic, and Black children are less likely to receive both EI and ECSE services than White children. NIEER explains that for Black children, the disparities in access to services are especially large and cannot plausibly be explained by differences in need.
  5. Boys are twice as likely as girls to receive EI and ECSE. NIEER notes that potential reasons include biological differences, however, more research and data are needed.


NIEER writes that “The magnitude and pervasiveness of inequality across the states calls for a national effort to ensure that children’s rights to EI and ECSE are adequately met in every state.” In order to ensure all children are receiving the services they need through IDEA, NIEER concludes the report with a few recommendations:

  1. The federal government should increase funding for EI and ECSE.
  2. The federal government and/or other organizations should convene a national commission to address inequity in EI and ECSE services and develop recommendations to ensure children’s rights to services. State administrators could contribute to recommendations for federal and state actions.
  3. The federal government should support additional research and require or incentivize more complete data.

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