The Obama administration is proposing a new rule in the longstanding debate about racial and ethnic bias in special education programs.
Under the proposal, the U.S. Department of Education wants to require states to follow a standard method for determining if significant racial and ethnic disparities exist in their special education programs, Education Week reports.
According to the administration’s data, school districts nationwide are underreporting what’s called “significant disproportionality” in special education. States are required to use a portion of their federal education money for early intervention, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.
But that’s not happening because states use their own methods to determine if significant bias exists in their special education programs.
An underlying issue is the belief of many that too many students of color are placed in these programs and disciplined disproportionately, and the administration wants to see that corrected.
“When we see students in any racial or ethnic group identified with disabilities at vastly higher rates than their peers, we owe it to these students to pause, step back and rethink,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said in a statement, according to KIRO7-TV.
A 2013 Government Accountability Office report said that about 2 percent of school districts—when states use their own methods—were flagged for having too many minorities in special education, according to Education Week.
Student discipline is another area where the administration believes school districts are underreporting significant disproportionality. Federal education officials have data that shows African-American students with learning disabilities received short-term, out-of-school suspensions two times more often than other students with disabilities, for three consecutive years, Education Week reports.
Federal education officials expect a significant increase in school districts identified as having significant race and ethnic disparities under its standardization plan.
“It’s not about identifying bad actors. It’s an opportunity to check practices and supports. We can’t begin this hard work unless we’re honest and forthright about the disparities that we see,” said Michael K. Yudin, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, reports Education Week.
Underneath the surface is a heated debate about racism in special education. Many who see the disproportionate number of Black students in special education programs conclude that there’s conscious or unconscious bias in the system.
They accuse teachers of placing children of color with minor behavioral problems or slower learners in special education classes that are less demanding and often under-resourced. But many of these students don’t have learning disabilities, they believe. That’s why, they argue, the federal government must intercede by flagging school districts with significant disparities.
Researchers setoff the latest round of debate on this subject last summer. Paul Morgan, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, and George Farkas, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about their study, which concluded that African-American students are actually underrepresented in special education.
Morgan and Farkas write, via the New York Times:
“Black children face double jeopardy when it comes to succeeding in school. They are far more likely to be exposed to the gestational, environmental and economic risk factors that often result in disabilities. Yet black children are less likely to be told they have disabilities, and to be treated for them, than otherwise similar white children.”
They warn of “well-intentioned but misguided advocates” who want to change policies that would prevent more African-American children from getting the services they need. Moreover, they’re critical of federal attempts to set a single standard to cap overrepresentation of minority students.