At its core, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed to promote and preserve equity in the identification, placement, education, and discipline of students with disabilities. Under IDEA, 6.7 million students 3 to 21 years old receive special education services. While we have made progress since the law was first passed in 1975, significant disparities continue to exist.
In particular, students of color face complex challenges that ultimately impede their ability to access appropriate services in appropriate settings. The significant disproportionality regulations—vetted by experts and the public and finalized in 2016—aimed to target those specifically related to identification, placement, and discipline inequities in special education. However, Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have decided to delay implementation of the Obama-era rule, which was supposed to go into effect this school year. In response, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a nonprofit advocacy coalition of parents of children with disabilities, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education this July, alleging that the delay represents a failure to ensure that students with disabilities receive appropriate services regardless of their racial background.
Researchers have long contended that students of color are overidentified and overrepresented in special education."
In the void of leadership and commitment to upholding student civil rights at the federal level, states have the opportunity to assume a significant leadership role in addressing racial disparities in special education. We implore states to rise to the occasion by dedicating localized attention to assessing disproportionality in their school districts and developing tailored standards and policies to address known problems. This disproportionality occurs when children from certain racial or ethnic groups are identified for special education services, placed in more restrictive settings, or disciplined at significantly higher rates than their peers. A few states have already seized this opportunity and developed their own specific strategies, some of which can serve as practical models for states across the country.
For example, California utilizes a comprehensive plan to address special education identification inequities in its state by defining critical values and beliefs, identifying goals, leveraging data, and providing improvement strategies. One element of this plan—the State Performance Plan Technical Assistance Project—provides a system of technical assistance, training, and coaching for districts working to address performance and compliance problems relating to disproportionality. Similarly, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is working collaboratively with a cohort of its districts and agencies to assess the root causes of racial disparities in identification for special education by providing tools, sustainable professional development, and other resources to its districts. By adopting a system of robust support similar to those of California and Massachusetts, states can better equip their school districts in the evaluation and improvement of practices and policies.
The degree to which disproportionality occurs in the first place remains unsettled, with researchers and experts disagreeing on even the most fundamental realities. However, the Trump administration’s decision to delay implementation of the disproportionality regulations is a short-sighted mistake which will have complex, long-lasting impacts on children.
Researchers have long contended that students of color are overidentified and overrepresented in special education, with the impact of inappropriately limiting their access to inclusive settings and the general education curriculum. However, a study published in the Educational Researcher last year counters this notion, finding that when family income and achievement are held constant, students of color are actually less likely to be identified for special education than their white peers. This conclusion is troubling, with children denied appropriate supports or services necessary for them to thrive. Either way, both overidentification and underidentification are civil rights violations that must be immediately addressed.
Researchers will likely continue to debate disproportionality and each other’s interpretations of data, methodology, and conclusions. Given this lack of clarity, state policymakers must prioritize the collection and analysis of district-level data and evidence—a practice embraced by state agencies such as Louisiana’s department of education, which releases an annual report examining if school systems have significant disproportionality. This data can enable policymakers to make informed decisions that reflect an evolving understanding.
A recent scandal in Texas—a state that artificially placed what was in practice a cap on the number of students identified for special education supports in 2004—illustrates the danger in failing to proactively monitor data and examine the consequences of district policies and practices. Since Texas first created a “benchmark” to which districts were encouraged to lower special education identification, the percentage of students provided with critical special education supports and services dropped from nearly 12 percent to less than 9 percent by 2014.
These problematic practices highlight an opportunity for states: They can learn from each other’s challenges to better identify and implement effective strategies. With more transparent data-informed decisionmaking, states, districts, and advocates can lead the way in developing individualized and innovative policies and practices that are better aligned with the goals and priorities of IDEA. Both overidentification and underidentification for special education services limit students’ opportunities, and states are well positioned to take the lead in fixing this critical problem.