Trump Administration to Reconsider Race-Based Special Education Quotas

Joy Pullmann, The Federalist, December 13, 2017

Today the Trump administration plans to suspend last-minute Obama-era regulations that required states to set quotas for special-education services based on race, known as the “significant disproportionality” rule. Although the regulations became binding two days before the end of the Obama administration, they have not yet affected children because they required data collection and paper-pushing that states were to have completed this coming July. That’s a good thing, because if the rule went into effect its biggest victims were likely those who don’t need any more disadvantages: minority special-needs kids.

The initial rule was based on data showing African-American children are more likely to be identified as needing special education services than are kids from other racial groups, said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who studies education policy. The Obama administration just assumed the reason for that was institutional racism, then rushed to force states to administer special-needs services according to race. If the feds found “significant disproportionality” — a term federal law does not define — among the percentages of kids of each race given special-education services, districts could have parts of their federal special education funding redirected.

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Rather than putting a child’s individual needs first, under this system states and therefore schools would be pushed to assign kids special-education services such as tutoring or therapy based at least partly on the students’ race. The policy theory parallels Obama administration school discipline race quotas that left educators across the country decrying a rash of violence and other disruptive behavior especially inside schools and districts with higher minority populations.

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In most prior studies, researchers concluded that minority children were being over-identified as disabled and suggested that schools may be using discriminatory identification practices. Concerns that minority children were being misidentified as disabled subsequently led to federal legislation and policies requiring U.S. schools to monitor the extent to which minority children are over-represented in special education.

However, the prior empirical work used to justify federal legislation and policies had largely not accounted for alternative explanations, including minority children’s well-known greater exposure to the risk factors for disability (e.g., poverty, low birthweight, lead exposure) that in turn would result in elevated likelihood of experiencing cognitive and behavioral impairments and attending academic and behavioral difficulties in school.

New work by Morgan and his colleagues, which better accounts for minority children’s greater risk factor exposure and experience of academic difficulties, repeatedly finds that minority children are less likely to be receiving special education services for identified disabilities.

This state of affairs for minority children parallels the general state of affairs in special education services, where children who need specific help are frequently denied it. {snip}

This situation, of having bureaucrats with other interests than the best service for the child in question all negotiate what he will get, “sets off a fundamentally adversarial relationship between student and family and school,” Eden said. “The student and family says ‘We need more,’ and the school has every incentive to say ‘We don’t think you need more.’”

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