The Lay Of The Gifted Land

Navigating the national landscape of funding for gifted programs

By Todd Stanley

Gifted education is often labeled as exceptional children and they are. Other exceptional children are special education students. The reason why both of these seemingly polar opposite groups are put together as exceptional is because they have very specific educational needs above and beyond what the typical child receives. The major difference is the special education child is protected by federal law under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That means if a child has been identified as special education and has specific learning needs written into his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), by federal law this must be adhered to by the school or risk loss of funding or a lawsuit. Because there is not a federal law protecting the rights of children identified as gifted, this becomes the right of each state to determine how gifted services will be followed. This is what this looks like:

States in green mean that gifted services are mandated and fully funded by the state. The purple states mandate gifted programming but are only partially funded by the state. Orange states have gifted services mandated but the state provides no funds to run the programming. Yellow states do not mandate gifted programming but state funding is available for those who choose to. The red states mandate no gifted programming and offer no gifted funds. What this shows is that only 4 states out of 50 value the education of our gifted students enough to mandate service and fully pay for it. There are others that mandate it and do not pay for it, and those who do neither.

Given the fact there is no national standard on gifted education, many times each state and/or local district determine for themselves the following:

  • Funding
  • Services
  • Identification
  • Certification


Because one is mandated and the other is not, special education gets far more funding from the federal government, the state, and locally. It is estimated that districts on average spend an additional $4700 in revenue per special education student a year. That is on top of what the district pays for each student in the district already. The federal government budgets over $12 billion dollars for IDEA funding. There is no federal money dedicated to gifted funding with the exception to the Javits Program which amounts to $12 million dollars for the entire country. Because it is left up to the individual states to decide what they are going to budget, you get wide disparities in the amount provided such as Georgia which allocated $367 million in 2012-2013, as opposed to a state comparable in population, Michigan, which set aside zero dollars for gifted in 2014-2015.


Because in 16 states there is no state mandated services, it is completely left up to each individual school district if and when they will provide specialized services for their gifted students. Even in states where there is partial funding, this may also be the case. As a result, in the same county, District A may decide to test students and provide services based on that testing. District B may decide to test students but not offer any services because their resources are being used elsewhere. District C may neither offer services nor even test to see if they have gifted students. Because districts are not forced to provide services, some simply do not. There are others that provide services because they see a need or parents have made it clear to school board members that they want gifted services. One could make the argument that it is best left in the hands of the local district because much like students, districts have different needs. If you are in a small district where there are not many students who are gifted, devoting an entire program to a handful of students would not be cost effective. The problem is that if districts are not mandated to identify students, they really do not know what their gifted population is so there may be a lot of students who need gifted services and are not getting them.

Even if a district decides to offer services, they can come in a variety of incarnations. It could be a resource room students go to for an hour a day, it could be a self-contained gifted classroom where students spend all of their time, it could even be inclusion where gifted students are clustered into a class along with other, non-gifted students and the teacher then must differentiate. No matter what service a district decides to use they need to provide an education that matches the unique potential of their gifted population.


In addition to each state deciding how they will fund and service gifted education, each state also decides how to identify gifted students. Some states use a list of state-approved tests that are nationally normed which must be used to determine giftedness. Other states are able to set local norms where grades, teacher recommendation and other subjective criteria are used. They can even determine locally what the acceptable score for students is going to be, meaning what is used to identify students in one district might have different criteria in another. This makes it a challenge for students who are changing schools. A child might qualify as gifted in that state and be offered services, but in the new state that identification might not be recognized so the student does not qualify. Some states have operating standards that dictate that whole grade testing must be done. Others simply leave it up to the schools which might do it by request only. This means if a parent is not aware of the testing procedures, they might not think to request the testing and the students will not have the opportunity to be identified.


There is even disparity as to how one becomes qualified to offer gifted services to students. Teachers of the gifted, just like teachers of all abilities, need specialized training to help them to best reach their students. In some states this amounts to watching a couple of modules online to certify them. In other states, coursework must be followed and a certification added to the state teaching license. In some states, it is determined by the number of hours you have spent in a classroom of gifted students.

Again, this presents a problem when teachers move from state to state. A teacher who is certified to teach gifted in one state is not able to do so in another because of different requirements.

You can see that gifted across the nation is like the wild west. There is no law or controlling entity so many states and districts decide what they will and will not do. Some have a sheriff who keeps the order and makes sure the gifted community is being protected. Others have no one looking out for gifted and so it gets pushed to the side. This can cause difficulty for students who are moving from district to district or state to state. The question is, might there be a better way? Should there be national standards that mandate the education and identification of gifted students much like special education? National organizations such as the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) do provide guidelines in the areas of teacher professional development, assessment and programming standards, but these are simply guidelines. Districts decide whether they are going to adhere to them or not. Maybe we should be more focused on making sure our potentially brightest students are able to live up to their abilities and use it to the betterment of themselves and society.

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