A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

To Assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of all Children with Disabilities - 1995

Number and Characteristics of Students with Disabilities in Rural Districts

To describe the population of students with disabilities in rural school districts, data from the CCD Public School Universe File were used to designate districts as rural or non-rural. The resulting file was merged with data from the 1990 Office for Civil Rights Elementary and Secondary School Survey.3 Together, the data describe rural and non-rural school districts in terms of the disabilities and English proficiency of their students with disabilities during the 1990-91 school year.4 Also presented in this section are data comparing rural and non-rural areas in terms of socioeconomic status.


The data presented in table 7.1 indicate that rural and non-rural districts serve very similar percentages of students with disabilities. The overall percentage of students served in rural and non-rural districts is similar, as is the distribution across disability categories.

According to the SASS data for the 1990-91 school year, public schools in rural areas served an estimated 497,000 students in special education programs. The Office for Civil Rights Elementary and Secondary School Survey, used in conjunction with the CCD Public School Universe File, produced a similar estimate of 475,510. Slight differences between the two surveys may be due to the different criteria used to define rural schools and school districts.

TABLE 7.1 Estimated Number and Percentage of Students with Disabilities in Rural and Non-Rural School Districts During the 1990-91 School Year
Disability                           Rural            Non-Rural                                 Number   Percent   Number   Percent
------------------------------------------------------------------- Mental retardation              55,061     1.25    495,094    1.36 Hearing impairment               4,587     0.11     40,541    0.11 Speech/language impairment     131,319     2.98    940,762    2.59 Visual impairment                1,710     0.04     16,603    0.05 Serious emotional disturbance   25,588     0.58    245,249    0.67 Orthopedic impairment            3,484     0.08     41,221    0.11 Other health impairment          5,104     0.12     47,189    0.13 Specific learning disability   243,269     5.52  1,724,647    4.75 Deaf-blindness                      97     0.00      1,152    0.00 Multiple impairments             5,291     0.12     81,011    0.22  All disabilities               475,510    10.80  3,633,469a/  10.0 
a/ The total number of students with disabilities in non-rural districts equals the sum of students reported in each disability category. Some districts reported different figures for 1) the total number of students, and 2) the number of students by disability. As a result, the figure presented is larger than the State-reported total number of students with disabilities in non-rural areas by 60,768 students.

Source: The 1990 Office for Civil Rights Elementary and Secondary School Survey and the 1990 Common Core of Data Public School Universe File. Data is for students pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

Socioeconomic Status

Rural school districts serve a larger percentage of children living in poverty than non-rural districts. Because socioeconomic status, educational levels, and family structure have been shown to be related to academic achievement (Laosa; Brown; Carter and Segura; Duran; Henderson; Lambert; NCES; and Rosenthal, Baker, and Ginsburg in Young et al. , 1986), poverty levels may affect the need for educational services. A recent Children's Defense Fund report (Sherman, 1992) indicates that 22.9 percent of rural children live in poverty, compared to 20.6 percent of all American children and 20 percent of non-rural children. The report also reveals that 41 percent of poor rural children live in "extreme poverty," defined as a family income below 50 percent of the Federal poverty threshold.

Rural districts are also more likely than non-rural districts to serve children who live in poverty for long periods of time. Data from the University of Michigan's Panel Study of Income Dynamics indicate that rural children who become poor are more likely than urban children to remain poor for at least three years (Sherman, 1992).

In a study examining differences between rural and urban school districts in a midwestern State, Capper (1990) noted that in the lower-income rural and small-town communities, community expectations for student achievement varied according to the degree of poverty and relative population sparsity. That is, the lower the income level and the more rural the community, the lower the expectations teachers had for students (Capper, 1990).

Data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study indicate that rural counties had higher rates of unemployment than urban or suburban counties. Whereas the unemployment rate in rural counties was over 9 percent, the rate in urban and suburban counties was 7 percent (Valdes et al., 1990).

Limited English Proficiency

While rural areas have fewer students with limited English proficiency than do urban areas, providing services for language minority-limited English proficient (LM-LEP) students with disabilities may be especially challenging in areas with limited access to specially trained staff. The 1990 Office for Civil Rights Elementary and Secondary School Survey estimates that 28,831 students with disabilities in rural districts required language assistance in addition to special education services to benefit from classroom instruction. This represents 1.2 percent of all students with disabilities in rural districts. In comparison, 2.3 percent of all students with disabilities in non-rural districts require language assistance.5

3 The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Elementary and Secondary School Survey collects data on the characteristics of students enrolled in public schools across the country. Public school districts and the schools within those districts are surveyed to generate State and natural estimates of the number of students identified as having speech impairments, learning disabilities, educable mental retardation, trainable mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance, hearing impairments, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, deaf-blindness, and multiple disabilities. Other student characteristics, such as ethnicity, gender, and English language proficiency are also included in the file. The 1990 survey included the 100 largest public school districts, those special interest (i.e., court order, compliance review), and a stratified random sample of approximately 3,500 districts representing 40,000 schools (NCES, 1993a).

4 Disability definitions used by OCR are consistent with those used by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, with the exception of the subcategories for students with mental retardation.

5 Detailed information on special education served for LM-LEP students with disabilities appeared in the Fifteenth Annual Report to Congress (U.S. Department of Education, 1993).

[Defining Rural School Districts and Schools] [Table of Contents] [Factors Associated with the Provision of Special Education to Students with Disabilities in Rural Districts]