Identifying Minorities in Spec. Ed.: Defining 'Too Many'

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For more than 10 years, the federal government has said that if school districts have too many minority students enrolled in special education, they should use part of their federal money to provide early intervention in an attempt to fix the problem. But how many is “too many”? That’s been left up to the states to decide—and only a tiny fraction of districts have been identified over the years.

The U.S. Department of Education proposed a rule earlier this year that would create a more-standard method of measuring what’s called disproportionality. More than 300 educators, researchers, and advocates responded to the department’s request for comments on the proposal before a final rule is adopted later this year. Here’s a sample of their remarks:


"If states must adopt a more rigorous methodology for measuring significant disproportionality, then states must also have greater flexibility in exempting districts from setting aside [special education] funds to address this issue."
—Steven T. Webb, superintendent, Vancouver, Wash., schools

"While we understand the need to create guardrails at the federal level to ensure that any instances of significant disproportionality are addressed, the recognition of the variance within and among states is important.”
—Council of Chief State School Officers

"Presently it is not clear whether overidentification or underidentification of students of color for special education placement is the greater problem. In fact, there is compelling research that underrepresentation is the concern."
—Sandra Beyda, special education department chair, Northeastern Illinois University

"CASE does not support the adoption of a uniform methodology for determining significant disproportionality. ... We do not believe the ‘one size fits all’ approach will change outcomes for students. In fact, we believe such an approach is inconsistent with the basic tenet of the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act]—focusing on the unique needs of the individual student.”
—Council of Administrators of Special Education


" We applaud the proposed use of standard methodology, particularly because of wide variation in state and [district] determinations of overrepresentation."
—Wendy Cavendish and Elizabeth Harry, professors, special education, University of Miami

"If insufficient resources are provided in the face of regulations that may increase pressure at the local level to find higher rates of significant disproportionality, there is indeed a danger that [districts] with significant disproportionality will let it be known, formally or informally, that fewer students in that racial/ethnic category should be referred."
—Russell Skiba, director, Equity Project at Indiana University

Why is the department proposing regulations that conflict with the best available empirical evidence regarding minority disproportionate representation in special education? Despite replicated and rigorous evidence to the contrary, the department continues to focus mainly on supposed overidentification.”
—Paul Morgan, director, Educational Risk Initiative, Pennsylvania State University; George Farkas, professor, University of California, Irvine


"[R]ecent research suggests that there may be just as many girls in need of IDEA services, but they are less likely to be identified through the referral process. Gender must now be given heightened attention, especially as it relates to identification for autism and emotional disturbance. We therefore urge the department to include gender and language ... as part of the required analyses."
—TASH, an advocacy group representing children and adults with significant disabilities

"Although discussions of disproportionality often focus on students with developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and specific learning disabilities, we also see disproportionalities in the segregation and discipline of students with sensory [blindness, hearing] and orthopedic disabilities."
—Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

"The proposed rule could have the unintended effect of excluding students based on race who need services, and could end up being very harmful to all students who have the need and right to [special education] services, to give pause to serving the needs of any student of any race for fear of some sort of percentage penalty."
—Robbi Cooper, Decoding Dyslexia Texas

Vol. 35, Issue 37, Pages 14-15

Published in Print: August 3, 2016, as Minorities Identified for Special Education: Defining 'Too Many'
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