Special Education

Education Department Seeks Rollback of Special Education Racial-Disparity Rule

By Christina A. Samuels — December 14, 2017 2 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is proposing a two-year delay of a rule that would require states to take a stricter approach to identifying whether their districts have wide racial or ethnic disparities in special education.

The department is asking for comments on its proposed delay. If there is no change, the rule, which was issued under the Obama administration, is set to go into effect for the 2018-19 school year.

During the two-year delay, the Education Department will consider eliminating the rule entirely.

Since the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, districts have been required to use up to 15 percent of their federal special education dollars to remedy state-identified disparities in how minority students are identified for special education, placed in restrictive settings, or disciplined.

But only about 3 percent of the nation’s 17,000 school districts have ever been identified by their states as having such disparities. The Government Accountability Office drew attention to this in a report back in 2013, and suggested that the Education Department step in and create a standard approach that all states would use to determining disproportionality in their districts.

That’s what the department did in 2016. Under the rule, states still have some flexibility, but would have to use a “reasonable” threshold of disproportionality.

The Education Department has estimated the cost to states to implement the special education regulation over 10 years at between $50 million and $91 million. Additionally, between $300 million and $553 million in federal special education funds would be reserved for remedies. The wide range in the estimates is because the Education Department is not sure how many districts will ultimately be affected.

The department is in the process of reviewing a number of regulations, memos and guidance documents as part of efforts throughout the government to “lower regulatory burdens on the American people,” as President Donald Trump wrote in an executive order in February.

In October, it rescinded around 70 documents from the office of special education programs and the rehabilitation services administration; those documents were old or had been replaced with more up-to-date information. In contrast, rolling back this rule would mark a major change in a policy that has been under debate for some time.

[CORRECTION: The original version of this post included an incorrect characterization of a disproportionality analysis released by the Education Department. The document, which explained how states could calculate disproportionality in districts, was published before the final rule was adopted, not after. When the final rule was adopted, changes made that analysis no longer relevant, the department has said.]

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