Special Education

Ed. Dept. Seeking Comments on Minority Overrepresentation in Special Education

By Christina A. Samuels — June 18, 2014 2 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is considering creating a standard definition for what constitutes “significant disproportionality” in special education, and is looking for the public’s help in developing that definition, according to a request for information to be published in the June 19 Federal Register.

The move is coming in the wake of a recent report from the Government Accountability Office that said that even though states are required to monitor overrepresentation of minority students in special education in their districts, only a tiny fraction of school districts around the country have actually been deemed to have a problem. Those districts are required to use part of their federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allotment to provide additional educational and behavioral support for students—with the intent of catching problems before they become entrenched.

To date, the definition of “significant disproportionality” has been left up to the states. That has lead to situations where Louisiana identified 73 out of its 111 school districts as having a overrepresentation problem worth addressing in the 2010-11 school year, while other states have none, or just a handful, of districts that have faced the same sanctions. The GAO report noted that in 2010-11, about 2 percent of the more than 15,000 school districts in the country were found to have “significant disproportionality” according to their state’s rules, and over half of those districts were in just five states: Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, and Rhode Island. In that school year, districts in 21 states were deemed to have no significant disproportionality at all.

Districts are also allowed—not required—to use part of their special education dollars to address overidentification that does not rise to the level of “significant,” however a state may define it. The Education Department said it would like to see more voluntary use of those funds for that purpose.

The department said it is looking for feedback on these questions:

  • Should it issue proposed regulations requiring states to use a standard approach to determine which districts have significant disproportionality? How might a standard approach properly account for differences among states, and what elements should be included in the calculation?
  • What actions, apart from requiring a standard approach, should the department take to address the very small number of districts identified with significant disproportionality, despite civil rights data that indicates significant disparities?
  • What actions should the department take to encourage voluntary use of IDEA money to address disparities, and to help districts target that money effectively?

Comments will be accepted 30 days after the date of publication; check the information request for details on how to submit information.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.