Special Education

Spec. Ed. Designation Varies Widely Across Country

By Joetta L. Sack — June 24, 1998 10 min read

In Compton, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb that has long been mired in poverty and poor achievement, one of every 12 students--about 8 percent--is classified for special education.

On the other side of the continent, in the well-heeled New York City suburb of Greenwich, Conn., the proportion is more than twice as high. In a district where the average price of a house is more than $1 million, about 18 percent of students fall into the special education category.

Those divergent numbers illustrate a stark and troubling fact: The criteria used to identify students as needing special education--one of the most far-reaching decisions in a child’s educational career--vary widely throughout the United States and even among districts in the same state. The simple fact of where a child lives can play a greater role in that determination than test scores, teacher evaluations, or other factors.

Mark Simon

“Special education has a lot of children in it who aren’t really disabled, and instead of special education, they need something special in their education,” said Gerald J. Reynaud, the executive director for special services for the 19,000-student Oletha, Kan., district. “It is a pretty complex problem.”

In large urban districts, for example, the proportion of students in special education ranged from 4.1 percent in Chicago to Boston’s 21.1 percent in 1994-95, the most recent school year for which comparable data are available from the U.S. Department of Education.

In New Jersey alone, the figures that year ranged from Paterson’s 4.7 percent to more than double that in Camden--11.3 percent. The proportion of special education students in Indianapolis--19.7 percent--was more than four times Indiana’s state average, and well above the national average of 11.1 percent.

The Education Department figures are based on the number of students for whom districts compile individualized education plans, or IEPs, which are required by federal law for students with disabilities. In many districts, the numbers have changed since 1995, and some districts use their own, different means of classifying students.

But the disparities raise serious questions for educators, parents, and the nation’s estimated 5.4 million special education students:

  • Are students in some areas being overidentified as disabled--a label that is nearly impossible to shed?
  • Are large numbers of students in other areas being passed over for educational services that would help them overcome potentially serious problems?
  • Are districts with a disproportionately high number of special education students spending too much money on costly services for those children at the expense of those in regular classrooms?

Different Criteria

The reasons for the inconsistencies are many, and experts say it is not at all the case that some districts are getting it right and others are doing things wrong.

Approaches to determining which students should be identified as disabled differ vastly from state to state and district to district. The quality of services provided to students in special education programs varies greatly as well.

Although categories of disabilities are spelled out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law, the federal government has no direct authority over how districts interpret those classifications. Instead, the Education Department’s office of special education programs monitors the state education departments, which in turn monitor local districts.

Educators in schools and districts navigate a maze of complex regulations and define for themselves such terms as “learning disabled” or “mentally retarded.”

Adding to the perplexity are broader social and demographic conditions that may affect how many children wind up in special education.

“We know poverty is related to disability,” said Thomas Hehir, the director of the Education Department’s office of special education programs. Poor prenatal care, exposure to environmental hazards such as lead paint, and a lack of early-childhood education are common problems in impoverished areas that can later lead to disabilities.

“But,” Mr. Hehir added, “there are districts where the opposite seems to occur.”

Parents a Factor

Often, other factors intervene, notably the wishes of parents.

Some parents want to avoid what they see as the stigma of special education and refuse the designation for their children even though they may badly need it. Other parents are willing--even eager--to accept the label, knowing that it will snag extra services for their children.

“I’ve had parents who wanted their child identified as special education because they wanted a tutorial service,” said Gerald Hime, a special education consultant and immediate past president of the Council for Exceptional Children in Reston, Va.

That’s what officials in Greenwich feared was happening. The school board of the 7,500-student Connecticut district became concerned about its fast-growing population of students identified for special services. In 1997, the board commissioned a team led by a consultant, Claire S. Gold, to look into the matter.

They found that about 15 percent of elementary pupils were receiving special education services in 1996-97, and that nearly one-third--almost 30 percent--of students in the district’s high schools were receiving such services.

“It’s a very affluent district with parents who have very high expectations, not only of their children but of the school system as well,” Ms. Gold said recently. “Parents really tend to expect a customized education as they might get in a private school.”

But she believed the district’s problems weren’t entirely based on pushy parents demanding Cadillac services. Her team found that Greenwich was offering little in the way of specialized help for students who were struggling in regular classrooms, particularly those having trouble learning to read. That left parents and teachers who wanted extra help with no other option than to ask for a disability label.

“They’re demanding it because it’s really the only act in town,” Ms. Gold said. “It’s how you get help if your child is struggling.”

Mr. Reynaud of the Oletha district in Kansas said he has also seen cases where an evaluation team might “make a decision out of sympathy rather than the child meeting the criteria” for a certain disability, because the needed services were not available through the regular classroom.

Putting students in special education because there is no other alternative for providing remedial services is a widespread problem, said Mr. Hehir of the Education Department. Such a practice, he said, is “a completely inappropriate use of special education.”

Added Costs

For districts struggling with tight budgets and limited revenue sources, the implications of a high proportion of special education students can be enormous.

Numerous studies have documented the rising costs of special education and the burdens such expenses can place on districts. Not only have enrollments increased, but the costs of technology and other related services also have skyrocketed. In many districts, those costs have cut into the money available for regular education.

Economist Richard Rothstein, in a report for the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, recently estimated that public schools’ spending on regular education nationwide dropped 2 percentage points on average between 1991 and 1996, from 58 percent of their total budgets to 56 percent. The share for special education over that same period grew from 17.8 percent to 19 percent, he concluded.

In some districts, special education consumes an even larger portion of the budget. In Greenwich, the figure was about 21 percent in 1996-97.

“The special education budget was increasing at double-digit rates,” said Kathryn Guimard, a member of the Board of Estimates and Taxation in Greenwich, which ordered the study by Ms. Gold. “It was becoming a concern because it was impacting the town and schools’ budgets.”

Too Few Students?

The consequences of identifying too few students for special education can be just as troubling.

In Compton, some teachers and parents fear that students have been routinely overlooked for special education services. The California district, which has been under state control since 1993, fits the stereotype of urban blight: Ninety percent of its students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and more than half come from families on welfare. Two-thirds of its 29,000 students students are Hispanic, and nearly one-third are African-American.

In March 1997, Kathleen M. Elkins became the district’s administrator of special needs, taking over a department that had gone without a leader for several years. She brought a philosophy that is growing within the field of special education: A more individualized education should be provided in the regular classroom, and special education should be used only as a last resort.

“The easy way out,” Ms. Elkins said, is to err on the side of caution and identify too many children for special education. But that can lead to excesses.

But she acknowledged that Compton in the past probably underidentified the number of students who needed a disability label--as evidenced by the dozens of parents and teachers who called her office during her first weeks on the job. The 1994-95 Education Department figure for Compton was 5.5 percent, one of the lowest among urban districts nationwide.

And, even though the figure has climbed to its current level of about 8 percent, some in the district still contend it is too low.

“They’re here,” Thomas Hollister, the executive director of the Compton Education Association, said of students needing special education. “They’re just not getting the help.”

The 1,400-member affiliate of the National Education Association has pressed the district to evaluate more students that teachers suspect may need special education services, Mr. Hollister said. He added that officials there have improved their efforts to offer such services.

OCR Scrutiny

It has long been a problem in some areas that children from minority groups are labeled for special education at much higher rates than white students because of misperceptions about cultural and language diversities.

Since Norma V. Cantu became the assistant secretary in charge of the federal Education Department’s office for civil rights in 1993, agency officials say they have been more aggressive in investigating special education complaints.

That doesn’t mean, however, that discrimination exists wherever there are racial differences in the proportions of disabled students, said Raymond C. Pierce, the deputy director of the department’s office for civil rights.

“Just because you have a disparity in figures doesn’t mean you have a violation,” he said. “But it gives you ample reason to start asking the hard questions.”

Even when discrimination isn’t to blame, other factors can lead to the overidentification of students for special education.

Asa G. Hilliard, a professor of education at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said a “maldistribution of good teaching” can play a role. Often, he explained, a district’s best teachers may not want to go to schools with the most needy children.

The less able teachers in those schools may be more likely to mislabel children as disabled. Some assessment scores may also be flawed, he added.

Mr. Hilliard recalled visiting an elementary school in which slow learners were pulled out of their regular classes for a special education reading class, which he believes might not have happened if the children had had better teachers.

“They were petrified,” he said of the youngsters. “They didn’t want to be seen walking into that classroom.”

Label Lingers

Once a student is tagged with the special education label, the designation is likely to remain for the rest of his or her academic career. According to the Education Department, very few return to regular education programs.

Of the more than 1 million students ages 14 to 21 with a diagnosis of specific learning disabilities in 1994-95 school year, only a little more than 4 percent--37,184--returned to regular education, according to the department’s latest data.

Mr. Hehir of the department’s special education office said it is no surprise that so few students shed the special education label.

When applied correctly, he added, the designation works to give children the help they need. “If a child is appropriately evaluated in the first place--and that’s an important ‘if'--they’re likely to need the support of special education throughout their schooling.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 24, 1998 edition of Education Week as Spec. Ed. Designation Varies Widely Across Country

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