A hearing by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission this week on minority overrepresentation in special education expanded into a three-hour discussion that touched on parental choice, school officials’ judgment calls on special education placements, and effective early-childhood education.
The commission plans to sift through the issues raised at the Dec. 3 hearing and make recommendations on the minority-overrepresentation issue, which has vexed educators for years.
Such disproportionality is viewed as a problem because in certain disability categories, minority students are represented in higher proportions than they are in overall student enrollments. Those students are often placed in self-contained special education classrooms and given instruction that isn’t as rigorous as the curriculum offered to other students. Many minority students in special education never graduate from high school.
Certain racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in special education compared with their percentages of the overall student population:
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
Minority students are more likely to be found in the so-called “judgmental” disability categories that require some degree of subjectivity on the part of a school-based team in the evaluation process, such as learning disabilities, mental retardation, and emotional disturbance.
The experts gathered for the Civil Rights Commission’s meeting included Stephanie J. Monroe, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education; representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National School Boards Association, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and researchers who have studied the issue extensively.
All agreed that disproportionality remains a subject of concern. Addressing the issue requires a comprehensive approach to several factors, including better teacher preparation, more federal monitoring, and parental empowerment, the experts said.
Ms. Monroe told the commission that a 1992 survey found that although black students made up about 16 percent of the total U.S. student population, about 32 percent of students classified as mildly mentally retarded and about 22 percent of students diagnosed with serious emotional and behavioral disturbances were black.
“Sadly, those disparities have not changed significantly” since 1992, she said.
The Education Department has undertaken several initiatives that have resulted in improved training for the school-based teams that make special education placements, Ms. Monroe said.
Early Reading Key?
Matthew Ladner, the vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute, a think tank in Phoenix, has studied minority overrepresentation in special education for the state of Arizona. His research has shown that minority students in predominantly white school districts were significantly more at risk of being placed in special education than those in predominantly minority districts.
“There’s a massive amount of error in these judgmental categories,” Mr. Ladner said.
He believes one solution is allowing more parental choice through programs such as Florida’s McKay Scholarships, tuition vouchers that help parents of children with disabilities pay for private schools of their choice.
Commission member Jennifer C. Braceras, a lawyer who lives in Concord, Mass., noted that she was more familiar with parents who are “fighting like cats and dogs to have their children classified as special ed,” rather than protesting overidentification.
“They want it because [students] get the attention that they would not get in the regular classroom,” she said.
Daniel J. Reschly, a professor of education and psychology at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., said that the situation that Ms. Braceras describes, in a relatively wealthy suburban area, has more to do with how special education services are provided to different students.
In more affluent areas, special education tends to be seen as a set of services that are provided to a child in a general education classroom. For many less affluent or minority students, special education is a special placement that takes a child out of the regular classroom.
Mr. Reschly said that effective early reading instruction may be the key to preventing inappropriate special education placements for any child.
“Reading is implicated as the first or second reason for 80 percent of special education placements,” he said.
The Civil Rights Commission, which reports to the president and Congress on bias issues, has taken up the special education issue in part because some of its members or staff officials have served in the Education Department.
Gerald A. Reynolds, the chairman of the commission, served as the head of the Education Department’s office for civil rights from 2002 to 2003. Among the department office’s duties are to investigate complaints of disproportionality in school districts. The commission’s staff director,Kenneth L. Marcus, also led the OCR in an acting capacity from 2003 to 2005.
The commission issues reports on its findings generally about a year after gathering information, Mr. Marcus said.
The panel is accepting public comments on disproportionality as it drafts its report, Mr. Marcus said. Comments may be sent by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.