Special Education

Ed. Dept. Seeks Standard Approach to Flagging Racial Bias in Special Education

By Christina A. Samuels — February 23, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


The U.S. Department of Education wants all states to start using a standard approach in measuring whether they are identifying minority students for special education services at higher rates than their peers.

In a proposed rule released Tuesday, officials said that the change would likely prompt many more districts to be classified as having “significant disproportionality,” which, under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, means they would have to set aside a portion of their federal funds to fix the problem. Significant disproportionality also applies to student discipline, and to student placement—for example, whether a student is moved outside of a regular classroom.

The work is imperative, said Michael K. Yudin, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitiative services, during a call with reporters.

“It’s not about identifying bad actors. It’s an opportunity to check practices and supports,” Yudin said Monday. “We can’t begin this hard work unless we’re honest and forthright about the disparities that we see.”

Currently, states are allowed to develop their own formulas to measure what the law calls “significant disproportionality” in special education. Districts with significant disproportionality are required to set aside 15 percent of their federal special education money for early-intervention services.

But a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office found that only about 2 percent of the nation’s school districts were flagged for having an overrepresentation of minorities in special education. In the 2009-10 school year, the report said, 356 of about 13,000 school districts nationwide were required to provide extra services to students because of overidentification. Half those districts were clustered in five states; 73 districts were in Louisiana alone. The GAO recommended using a standard calculation.

“The data we’ve seen makes it very clear that we, as a country, are not living up to the intent of the law,” said acting Education Secretary John B. King Jr. on Monday.

Education Department Finds Significant Disproportionality in Many Districts

For example, the department said, its own data showed that 876 school districts gave African-American students with disabilities short-term, out-of-school suspensions at least twice as often as all other students with disabilities for three years in a row.

Disparities are also prevalent in the discipline of students of color with disabilities, the department says. With the exception of Latino and Asian-American students, more than 1 out of 4 boys of color with disabilities and nearly 1 in 5 girls of color with disabilities receive an out-of-school suspension.

The proposed rule would expand how the 15 percent set-aside can be used by districts flagged for minority overrepresentation. Currently, the money can only be used for programs to benefit K-12 students who do not have disabilities, the logic being that appropriate early intervention could keep those students from needing special education services at all.

But some state education officials have argued that the current set-aside rule provides an incentive for districts to keep overidentification rates low, so that they can use all of their federal special education money on students who are actually covered under the IDEA.

The new rule loosens that restriction, allowing districts to use set-aside funds for students both with and without disabilities. The set-aside funds could also be used for children as young as 3.

The department’s move is sure to spark some disagreement. In 2014, when it sought comments on whether a standard definition of disproportionality would be needed, many state education officials warned of the dangers of an approach that ignores the unique issues of individual school districts.

Several states signed on to comments from the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

“NASDSE recognizes that the overidentification of minority students in special education is a concern that should be addressed,” the group said. “The temptation to address this concern by developing a standard approach is great. ... But, if our nation has learned just one thing since the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, it would be that ‘one size does not fit all.’ ”

Related Stories:

for the latest news on special education policies, practices, and trends.

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

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Opinion Inclusive Teachers Must Be 'Asset-Based Believers'
Four veteran educators share tips on supporting students with learning differences as they return to classrooms during this pandemic year.
16 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Special Education Opinion 20 Ways to Support Students With Learning Differences This Year
Embed student voices and perspectives into the classroom is one piece of advice educators offer in this third pandemic-affected school year.
16 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Special Education Schools Must Identify Students With Disabilities Despite Pandemic Hurdles, Ed. Dept. Says
Guidance stresses schools' responsibilities to those with disabilities, while noting that federal COVID aid can be used to address backlogs.
2 min read
School children in classroom with teacher, wearing face masks and raised hands
Special Education Attention Deficit Rates Skyrocket in High School. Mentoring Could Prevent an Academic Freefall
Twice as many students are diagnosed with ADHD in high school as in elementary school, yet their supports are fewer, a study says.
4 min read
Image of a child writing the letters "ADHD" on a chalkboard.