Michigan failing its special needs children, parents and studies say.

special needs child

Federal officials say Michigan isn’t properly educating students with disabilities. Parents blame cost cutting.

Learning disabilities decline

While the number of Michigan students has fallen nearly 3 percent in the last six years, the number of those getting help for learning disabilities has fallen by 17 percent and critics believe the drop has been driven by high costs, not a lack of need.

Renee Honor knew something was wrong with her son, Nicholas, when he was struggling to read in third grade. She was upset his school didn’t catch it.

Honor, 43, of Detroit, asked his school to test him for special education and soon found out he had attention deficit disorder, a mild cognitive disorder, and is on the autism spectrum.

The diagnosis has turned Honor into something of an educational nomad. Over the past five years, she’s switched school three times in Detroit in hopes of getting better services, which have ranged from little intervention to a self-contained special-education class.

Now 15, Nicholas is heading to Mumford High next month with assessments that show he’s reading at a sixth-grade level, but a report card that says he’s passing all his classes. Honor says her son still confuses the letters “b” and “d” and struggles to count coins.

“They’re not giving him what he needs,” Honor said. “This is how a kid ends up wanting to drop out.”

Honor is among a vocal group of Michigan parents who contend the special education population is declining statewide because districts aren’t providing costly services. Not only is the number of students receiving special services in Michigan falling at a rate faster than the national average, but the state’s special education students are performing below national averages, according to an analysis by Bridge Magazine.

The state’s special education population has decreased 7.8 percent to 197,000 students from 214,000 in 2011-12, according to the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information. At the same time, local revenues for special education have fallen 22 percent to $132 million from $170 million in 2011. Overall, it costs more to provide services for special education students than general education ones, but state and federal government funding do not cover most of those costs.

renee honor

Renee Honor of Detroit said she fears her son is being pushed through school and hasn’t received proper services to reach his potential.

Nationwide, the special education population decreased by 2.5 percent to about 6.5 million in 2015 from a high of 6.7 million in 2004, mostly because of a decline in services to children with learning disabilities such as brain injuries and dyslexia.

An ‘epidemic’ of failure

The decrease in populations coincides with several reports showing that Michigan’s special education students perform worse than those in other states.


  • About 25 percent special education students drop out of high school in Michigan, compared to a national average of about 18.5 percent.  
  • The state has no law outlining how to identify or address dyslexia, while 26 other states have adopted guidelines, according to a 2017 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities based in New York.
  • Only 24 percent of fourth-grade children with disabilities in Michigan scored at basic proficiency or better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test. Fourth-grade children with disabilities had an average reading score of 177 in Michigan, compared to the national average score of 184.
  • About 2 percent of the state’s special education students are given alternate special education tests instead of the general state test, double the national mandate.
  • Despite a federal law that calls for including special education students in the least restrictive environments as often as possible, 39.3 percent of children with disabilities in Michigan are educated in schools or classes separate from other students, compared to 25.2 percent nationally, according to data released in 2017 by federal officials.

The U.S. Department of Education declared that Michigan “needs assistance” in an annual report released last month on whether states are meeting the requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a 1975 law that requires those with disabilities to receive free education from ages 3 to 21. The federal report found that Michigan is one of 23 states that have not met standards for disabled students for two or more consecutive years.

The finding was based in large part on the high dropout rate among special needs students in Michigan and their low scores on the national tests.

Teri Chapman, director for Michigan’s Office of Special Education, said the state will launch an effort this fall to explore ways to get more special needs children out of specialized schools and into classes with general education students.

She said the state may have better odds of improving the graduation rate among special needs students than improving scores because the state’s curriculum is not aligned to national tests.

Part of the reason the special education dropout rate is higher is because, unlike other states, Michigan doesn’t have a separate diploma for special education students, Chapman said. Instead, the state allows school districts to devise personalized curricula to help those students satisfy rigorous standards such as the Algebra 2 high school math requirement.

Few districts have found meaningful ways to help special needs students meet those requirements, so many students end up staying in high school five or six years or dropping out, Chapman said.

“We want to support all kids in being able to meet the requirements,” Chapman said. “The challenge is getting districts to look at different ways to get kids to meet them.”

Doug Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said the decreasing academic performance is proof more children need more help.

“The prevalence of poor achievement, of not learning, is dramatic. The nation should be talking about this and it’s not,” Fuchs said. “I think you can justifiably think about it as an epidemic of failed students.”

David Hecker, president of the AFT-Michigan teachers union, said low performance among special needs students is linked to a statewide teacher shortage, lack of sufficient special education federal funding and the state’s curriculum not being tied to national tests.

Population declines

Special education populations are decreasing nationwide largely because of a 20-year decline in the number of students diagnosed with a “specific learning disability” such as difficulty thinking or communicating, but not emotional or mental problems.

Fuchs said that population has declined as schools used different  academic interventions to assist learning disabled students.

In Michigan, the percentage of students diagnosed with a specific learning disability has decreased by 16 percent since 2011. State data show the learning disabled population decreased to 60,895 students this year (3.8 percent of all students) from 73,099 in 2011-12 (about 4.5 percent of all students). Nationally, the learning disabled population has fallen at a slower rate, to 4.5 percent of all students in 2015 from 4.7 percent in 2011-12,  according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

No law for dyslexia

Amid the wrangling over low performance and test scores is rising frustration among some parents about the lack of services.


Jen Dugan is considering moving her daughter Kiley out of the Madison District Public Schools in Oakland County because she isn’t receiving services for her dyslexia.  (Bridge photo by Chastity Pratt Dawsey)

Jen Dugan of Madison Heights pays out of pocket for tutoring because her school did not find her child eligible for special education services.

Her daughter, Kiley Dugan, 9, likes math. But ask her about reading and she averts her eyes and shrugs. Kiley struggles to read because she has attention deficit disorder and is severely dyslexic. Her family paid more than $1,000 to have her privately tested and pays for her to receiving tutoring at the Michigan Dyslexia Institute.

The school she attends in Madison Heights in suburban Detroit adjusted expectations due to her ADD, but did not find her eligible for an individualized education plan to address the dyslexia, her mother said.

“If they found her eligible for services for dyslexia, my daughter would’ve been (paired) with a reading specialist, but no,” said Dugan, 40.

“I get there’s a lack of funding across the board, but because of that they’re doing the least they possibly can.”

Stephanie Siems, director of special education services for Lamphere Schools in Madison Heights, said she could not discuss Kiley’s case due to privacy rights.

Generally speaking, she said, Lamphere provides assistance for dyslexic students and parents should alert school officials if they are feel their child is not progressing.

“As educators, we want parents to express whether interventions we put in place are working or not,” Siems said. “We can collect data and make changes.”

Dugan said she doesn’t plan to stick around for that. Kiley was accepted to another district through the schools of choice program.

Dugan said the family is planning to move out of Madison Heights if the other district finds Kiley eligible for special education services.

“A lot of special needs people have the ability,” she said. “They need the right services.”

Services vary

The experiences of Dugan and Honor, the Detroit mother who has moved schools three times, isn’t uncommon. That’s because where a child lives in Michigan can dictate what services they receive.

School districts determine whether a child needs special education services using different criteria from test scores to observing a child’s pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

Educators and parents agree that it’s a subjective process. A child eligible for services in one district may not be designated as special needs in another.

“You end up with these variations across (districts) within the same state,” Candace Cortiella, director of the Advocacy Institute, a Washington D.C.-area group that advocates for disabled people. “People can move across the street and there’s whole different criteria.”

Marcie Lipsitt, a well-known special education advocate in Michigan, said she has advised parents to leave districts where they were denied services. The same families moved to another community and their children were found eligible for special education services.  

“There’s no fidelity in how these districts are looking at things, there’s no fidelity in Michigan’s criteria,” Lipsitt said.

Michigan has submitted a plan to address academic performance to meet the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA.

But an analysis of the plan by the Advocacy Institute concluded it is “indefensible” and could lead to federal sanctions because it fails to meet expectations.

States that fail to meet the standards set out in the law could face sanctions such as a reduction in federal Title 1 funding for programs for low-income students.

“Sadly, we find little in Michigan’s draft ESSA plan will lead to improved performance for the state’s students with disabilities,” an analysis completed by The Advocacy Institute found.

The state’s plans “reflect the expectation for a mediocre level of achievement that is certain to cement Michigan’s inferior ranking in public education among states for decades to come.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Thu, 08/10/2017 - 8:17am

Are there any programs to help these kids that show measurable long-term benefit toward a self sustainable existence? If so, great fund them. Or do these programs just become an end in themselves other than providing day care services? What are we getting for what we spend? The US leads the world ( OEDC) in Education spending, Special ed is a big part of it, yet once again, the US doesn't appear to have much to show for it.

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 9:24am

Excellent comment. The governments are very used to throwing money at anything, then never doing the follow-up to insure the expected results have been achieved.

I am also disturbed that the article made it appear that Michigan was using a standardized test for math in the statement "....... such as the Algebra 2 high school math requirement." Yes, maybe a large percentage of special needs students can learn math, but it is unrealistic to expect that all can. Realistic expectations are needed for the curriculum. Maybe little Johnny will never learn to count to 100 or read beyond a 2nd grade level.

Marcie Lipsitt
Thu, 08/10/2017 - 5:00pm

Shame on both of you! Clearly you know nothing about learning disabilities or you would know that these children have average or better intelligence. We have presidents with learning disabilities. Your attitudes and comments are deplorable.

Sun, 08/13/2017 - 10:36pm

And you are delusional every kid can and will master what ever< calculus? if only we expend enough efforts and resources on them!

Mon, 08/14/2017 - 6:52pm

These commenters are not capable of shame. They are the same ones who are "experts" on everything, always comment like they have all the answers. I am not sure they even work or pay taxes.

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 9:53am

Elected officials are either ignorant or don't care.

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 10:05am

In a country that spends trillions each year on now 4 wars , why is there not enough funding for better services for special needs children here! Recent funds for large businesses could be found yet our education system once tops in nation is no longer viewed as a good one! The challenges parents face to gain support for their child should not require moving from their home so they can get better ed services! Furthur community colleges need to have programs to better prepare special needs children for work ! Sad for so many young people!

Thu, 08/10/2017 - 1:15pm

Unfortunately for the parent who is moving her child under a school of choice plan, what she does not know is that Michigan law regarding school of choice is not the same for students with an IEP as it is for students without. She can enroll her child in the new district through a choice program, but when the new district is made aware that she receives special services they will need to secure what is known as a "cooperative agreement" from the district the student resides in. The resident district is not obligated to enter a cooperative agreement and if they cannot come to agreement with the other district then the parent will be faced with declining services for her daughter or returning to the original district. Some school districts are open to cooperative agreements on a case-by-case basis, some have blanket waivers with other districts in the same county, and some reject all cooperative agreements regardless of circumstances. It is a mish-mash of procedures and can be very confusing to parents who think that school choice means they can just go elsewhere and expect services to be provided. Unless she is physically moving and becomes a resident student, special education services are NOT a guarantee under school choice.

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 7:20pm

This is a very frustratingly true. I tried to do school of choice and my resident district denied it. The worst part is that the school doesn't have a self contained class for 7/8 grade so my son is mixed in with EI and resource room. The teacher ended up quiting in Feb and wasn't replaced until the beginning of May. Even now that there is a teacher, he is so busy with the other students, my son spends much of the school day either watching a movie or playing minecraft.

Wed, 05/08/2019 - 10:06am

I taught students with mild cognitive impairments in an exemplary district - Midland. We had an actual self contained program for our students in the middle school. We didn't focus on the "label" but where the students were functioning and what academic needs they had. Besides teaching them to read, write and do math (functional - keeping a checkbook, building and maintaining a monthly budget) we also had a "hands on" component. We taught students to read blueprints (easy basic ones) and build an 8 X 8 foot room including electrical circuits, plumbing, drywall and ceramic floor tile. They also ordered components to completely build desktop computers - cases, power supplies, motherboard etc. They had a budget and had to compare prices on the Internet to complete these tasks. The GENERAL education students were invited to work along side my students (they LOVED it). HIGHLY successful program for many years. We taught them to work as a team, team responsibilities and how to PLAN. Our Work Study Coordinator did follow up studies for many years and found over 80 percent of the students graduating from our program went on to be FULLY employed and living independently in the community. Most WITHOUT any government assistance. These students were on sports teams in the middle school, and took their elective classes with general education students (art, music, LME,gym etc).
THAT was a successful program! We had large numbers of general education students who were included in many of our projects - but it was the students in the CI program who would teach them. I retired in 2016 and miss the classroom and my students a lot!

Jim Brinkman
Thu, 08/10/2017 - 4:27pm

Michigan has gone from a national leader in providing services for Special Education students and parents to a state that is being called out by the Feds. Many reasons for this, including state funding. The "school of choice" and Charter school explosion is also to blame. No one wants the student who requires more. Services are delayed, reduced and frequently denied all in an effort to get the student to move on. Two different studies initiated by the the State of Michigan indicate the Michigan needs to be spending considerably more, over $1000 per student, in per student funding. Our caring legislators respond with $100 per. Time to elect new legislatures and Gov.

Chuck Jordan
Thu, 08/10/2017 - 7:39pm

There are many differences between people with developmental and learning disabilities. They are not all the same. People with developmental disabilities need to learn the skills that will lead them to gainful, independent employment. People with learning differences often times can finish college and graduate school with the right kinds of intervention. Treating students all the same like they should all learn the same things like common core and go to college is just dumb.

Ben Washburn
Sun, 08/13/2017 - 1:45am

I note that there are just two persons who immediately respond to almost every article posted by Bridge, Matt and Rich, who do not leave their full identities, and I have to wonder who is paying them to do this. Jane Meyers in Dark Money, certainly gives us a lot of clues.
I grew-up in rural Kentucky in the 1940s, graduating in 1953 in a country school class of just 16. I didn't learn to read until the very end of the 4th grade (1945) until then I got "D's) and "F's". After that, I got straight "A's". Why? Because my teacher, Mrs. Leach, read to us each day while we waited for the school bus to take us home, from Huckaberry Finn.
Looking back, I was just a classic case of dyslexia. I always had to work extra hard to overlearn everything. But, eventually, that became a solid sociological and social plus. But while the fact that I luckily persevered to overcome all of these obstacles, and to go on to become the gyroscope of the Detroit School Board from 1989 until 1999, when Governor John Engler swept us aside in a moment of totally personal spite, I am delighted that our newest Superintendent also "suffered" similar obstacles, and clearly understands that the travails of such students are an inspiration and an asset for our common good.

Barb BB
Sun, 08/13/2017 - 9:23pm

I teach special education in a Lansing suburb. Two points I'd like to make:
Criteria for special education has changed and many students who need help do not meet the stricter criteria. It is true that the schools have hired more staff to work with students who are not special education eligible, but that brings me to point number two: there is not enough staff to meet often enough with these kids. Special education eligible or not, these high risk students need more time in small group or individual instruction, either during the school day, after school, or *here's an idea* SUMMER SCHOOL. My school has summer school for 16 kindergarteners and 1st graders--that is all! We know how and what to teach them, but we don't have the resources!

Fri, 08/25/2017 - 11:15pm

I moved my child from the Detroit Public Schools system as well. My issue, I worked for the District at the time, and was well aware that Special Education Teachers receive a premium over regular teacher's in salary for a special education endorsement. What they were doing with the money - not sure. I moved my son because it took the district 9 months to decide to evaluate him on the autism spectrum. And I had to have him diagnosed through the Children's Center. What hurt me the most, was that my educated sisters (Masters and Ph.D, did not help me have my son to be placed. They even had me sign away my son's rights and mine to have him tested for autism.) It took a compassionate Caucasian teacher to push the system and finally get my son placed.) I will never ever forget that man for helping me get my son some of the help he needed.
They also told me in Detroit that he would never comprehend past the 2nd grade. He is a senior in high school. And has been on the honor roll every single card marking. I am in an Oakland County district. He works in a part time restaurant in the neighborhood. And is doing quite well.
I am so glad that I moved him from the Detroit district, because they were just passing him through without him meeting the necessary milestones.
Parents, you have to push the system, and don't take what they tell you. Do your own investigation, and talk to child experts. Don't just accept what they tell you. You know you child, and you know what they are capable of, if given the right tools, and assistance.