Department of Education Looks to Remedy Special Ed Overrepresentation


Earlier this week the US Department of Education said that there are a number of differences exist in public schools across the country where minority students are typically considered to be more likely to have a disability, and also face harsher discipline than white students.

“When we see students in any racial or ethnic group identified with disabilities at vastly higher rates than their peers, we owe it to these students to pause, step back and rethink,” Acting Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said in a phone call with reporters.

In an effort to fix this, the department is considering a new rule that would require states to adopt a different, more uniform approach to measure whether there is an overrepresentation of minority students in special education.

Once a district determines that an overrepresentation is present, school officials would be afforded the flexibility to determine how best to spend their federal dollars given to them under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

Under the current system, districts with a high number of disparities must put 15% of its IDEA money toward offering early intervention services starting in kindergarten.  The new rule would increase that to also offer services to students with or without disabilities beginning in preschool.

According to an analysis performed of data recently submitted by states, hundreds of districts around the country have large racial or ethnic disparities that are going unnoticed, writes Jennifer Kerr for ABC News.

One example offered by the DOE showed 876 school districts suspending African-American students with disabilities almost twice as much as other students without disabilities for three years in a row.  However, the department said that as of 2013, less than 500 districts in total had “significant disproportionality” or overrepresentation.

According to studies, only between two and three percent of all school districts across the country have been identified in this way.

“We have a moral and a civil rights obligation to ensure that all students, with and without disabilities, are provided the tools they need to succeed, regardless of background,” said King. “IDEA exists for the purpose of ensuring that students get the unique services they need, and we owe it to them and to ourselves to uphold all of the law’s provisions.”

The department analysis also showed Pennsylvania to have 13 districts with twice as many Hispanic students with speech or language impairments as other students for three years in a row beginning in 2012.  However, no districts in the state were found to have a wide disparity in the identification of other specific disabilities for the 2012-13 school year.

The recent proposal comes as a result of a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office that found a number of states had defined overrepresentation in such a way that it became unlikely that a school district would be found to have significant disparities, which would have caused them to be required to spend money on intervention and support services for students.

The proposal is currently open for public comment.  It could be months before a final rule is in place.

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