FAQs on racial disparities in special education and the “significant disproportionality” rule

By The Understood Team on May 23, 2018

Understood does not take positions on government policy. Some of our 15 founding partners may, however. That includes our managing founding partner, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). Our mission at Understood is to make sure parents have the information they need to support their child.

If a school identifies 15 percent of Black kids as having disabilities, but only 5 percent of white kids, is that a problem? What if the Black kids with disabilities are disciplined more frequently or with tougher consequences? This is known in as significant disproportionality. And Lindsay Jones, chief policy and advocacy officer for NCLD, says it is indeed a problem.

Here, Jones answers common questions parents may have.

What is significant disproportionality?

Significant disproportionality is when a school district identifies kids from any racial or ethnic group for special education at markedly higher rates than other kids. This is a concern not because kids are being identified as having disabilities, but because they may be identified as having disabilities when they don’t actually have one.

And it’s not just about identification for services. In fact, there’s a provision in special education law that requires school districts to figure out if kids in these groups are treated differently. To do so, they must consider three key questions:

  • Are certain groups of kids identified for special education or identified with particular types of disabilities at different rates?
  • Are kids of different racial groups placed in more restrictive class settings, like separate classrooms or schools, at different rates than others?
  • Are kids of different racial and ethnic groups disciplined more often and/or more harshly than others?

If the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” districts are required by to figure out the cause of the disparity and address the issue.

Why is it a problem?

These disparities can have a negative impact on students for lots of reasons. For instance, kids who are misidentified may not be getting the right supports to succeed in school.

Consider these points:

  • Research shows that minority students and English language learners are not only disproportionately labeled as needing special education services. They are also more likely to be placed in more restrictive settings.
  • During the 2013–2014 school year, Black students made up nearly 16 percent of students in public schools. But they made up 20 percent of students identified with a (SLD) that year.
  • That same year, Asian students made up nearly 5 percent of public school students, but only 1.5 percent of students with SLD.
  • 1 in 4 Black boys identified with disabilities are suspended each year, while only 1 in 10 white boys identified with disabilities are suspended.

Research shows that inclusion in general education classrooms (as opposed to restrictive settings) can improve academic and social outcomes for students with disabilities — particularly for students with learning disabilities. And kids who are suspended miss out on important instruction. That can lead to lower levels of educational success.

Watch as LeDerick Horne, poet and activist with learning disabilities, shares his perspective on racial disproportionality in special education:

How has the federal government approached the issue?

While IDEA requires states to address this issue in their districts, a 2013 government study showed that many states were not doing it well. They were not doing a good enough job of looking at their data and addressing issues. In fact, some states set up their systems in a way that they’d likely never identify any districts as having an issue.

The study recommended that the U.S. Department of Education develop a standard approach for states to review and address these disparities. To try to fix the problem, the federal government wrote regulations in 2016 known as the “Equity in IDEA” regulations. These are sometimes referred to as the “significant disproportionality” regulations or rules.

This created a way for all states to review their data and set up a fair system across the country. It also gave districts additional flexibility in how they can use IDEA funds to address problems.

The “significant disproportionality” regulations are set to take effect in July of 2018. However, the Trump administration is pushing to delay implementation. They would like two more years to do their own analysis of the problem and possibly develop a different approach.

What can you do to learn more?

You can learn more about significant disproportionality from NCLD. If your child has an or a , read about rights around discipline. You can also watch a short video from the National Disability Rights Network about the proposed changes.

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    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.