The Detroit News
By Matt Ladner
April 14, 2002
Congress will soon take up the task of reauthorizing the federal special education law, with parents, teachers and administrators all expressing legitimate and deeply felt grievances about the current systems.
Parents express enormous dissatisfaction with the services provided to their children; teachers have had it with the amount of red tape and paperwork involved while administrators and taxpayers grapple with out-of-control budgets. In addition, a growing body of research demonstrates that race plays a disturbingly large role in determining whether a public school will label children disabled and place them in a special education program.
Special-education enrollment has grown 65 percent since the inception in the mid-1970s, to about 6.1 million students in the 1999-2000 school year. By far the biggest growth has been in the percentage of children classified as learning disabled -- which was 21 percent when the law was passed, but 46 percent in 1998. Disability rates outside of learning disabilities have been relatively flat.
Education researchers have known for some time that minorities are over-represented in special education. For example, while African-American students account for 16 percent of the U.S. student population, they represent for 32 percent of the students in programs for mild mental retardation.
The Harvard Civil Rights project last year released a study finding startlingly large disparities in special education.
In 2001, the Progressive Policy Institute and the Fordham Foundation issued a joint collection of studies on special education policy. Examining school district data from a number of states on behalf of this project, Christopher Hammons and I found a common pattern of predominantly white schools placing minority students into special education at significantly higher rates than average. The statistics demonstrate that race plays a substantial role in minority special- education placements, even after controlling for a variety of other factors such as school spending, student poverty and community poverty.
Ultimately, you don't need a statistical analysis to see this problem: There are states with average African-American special education rates twice as high in primarily white districts as compared with primarily minority districts.
Recent medical research into learning disabilities demonstrates a strong link between ineffective reading instruction and later learning disabilities.
An analysis by a team of medical doctors presented in the Fordham/PPI study estimates that nearly 2 million children have learning disabilities that could have been prevented with proper, rigorous and early reading instruction.
National reading tests reveal that American public schools are failing to teach reading to elementary students at alarming rates. Sixty percent of both low-income and African-American fourth graders tested scored "below basic" on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress examination. We should therefore be outraged but not shocked that learning disability rates are higher among minority students given the link between basic literacy and learning disabilities.
The dots to connect look like this: Public schools are failing to teach children to read and labeling minority children as disabled at amazingly alarming rates. The Bush administration and Congress have begun to take steps toward remedying the nation's literacy crisis, but the dots do not stop there. National reading scores are abysmal, but the trends have been flat during the last 30 years. Meanwhile, learning disability labels have soared.
Washington should thoroughly investigate every possible cause of this over-identification problem, from perverse financial incentives to outright racial bias.
Under common funding formulas, school districts have a financial incentive to classify low-achieving child as disabled to attract additional funds to the school district. When schools provide services in the regular classroom setting, the incentive to classify grows.
In 1995, New Jersey Education Commissioner Leo Klagholz told the Sunday Star Ledger, "We spend the money every year, but we have no way of knowing whether the money we spend actually goes to the education of disabled children." He admitted an incentive exists to classify children as disabled.
Such incentives would certainly help to explain the explosion of learning disability designations (given to children who are often mainstreamed into regular classroom settings) while other disability rates have remained flat.
These incentives, however, cannot explain higher minority rates at predominantly white schools and districts, as all districts would presumably share such perverse financial incentives.
Although special education is primarily a federal issue, states have taken the lead in addressing the problem. Florida has made every disabled student in the state eligible for a voucher so they may attend a public or private school of their choice. This law has proved to be popular with special-education parents while reducing the incentive to misidentify children as having disabilities.
Other states, and more recently the federal government, have experimented with changing funding formulas to avoid perverse financial incentives.
Racial over-identification is only one of the problems with the special education system, but the law badly needs reform to avoid having new federal funds simply result in even more of the same.
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