Homeless Students in Special Education

In the 2016–17 school year, 18% of the 1.35 million homeless students nationwide—approximately 250,000 students—were identified as having a disability, higher than the national average of 13% for all students. While these students are entitled to special education services, the realities of homelessness can make it difficult for them to receive the necessary evaluation services in a timely manner. Mid-year transfers between school districts, which are prevalent among homeless students, can mean delays in the evaluation process and the creation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for a student. This in turn results in delays in students receiving the support services they need.

Having the procedures, staff, and resources necessary to ensure that homeless students can receive the special education supports they may need is important because of the high prevalence of learning disabilities among homeless children. Homeless students are more than four times as likely as their classmates to have a developmental delay and twice as likely to have a learning disability, which can compound other challenges, such as absenteeism and school transfers, that put homeless students at an academic disadvantage.

This ranking shows states’ ability to provide special education services to homeless students who need them by measuring the percentage of a state’s homeless students who have been identified as having a disability. States with higher percentages may be more likely to have IEP identification practices that can accommodate the many challenges, both developmental and practical, that can affect homeless students’ learning.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students who fall into any of 13 disability categories are entitled to special education services that will support their ability to obtain a free and appropriate public education.

This is done through the creation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which outlines the specific individual supports and services that the student will receive, and is created through a collaborative process involving parents, teachers, and administrators.

Hover over a state and click through the years to see how the rankings have changed over time. Click on a state to learn more.

Maine had the highest percentage of homeless students in special education, where 31% of homeless students were identified with a disability in SY 2016–17. Three states (Vermont, California, and Alabama) increased the proportion of homeless students identified with a disability by five percentage points or more. Nine states identified over one in four homeless students with disabilities in 2017. Texas identified the lowest rate at 12%.