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ED Seeks More Accurate Measures of Disproportionality in Special Education

0222416_specialeducationThe Department of Education wants states to start using a standardized methodology to determine whether they are identifying minority students for special education services at a disproportionately high rate.

Acting Education Secretary John King said in a press call on Monday that a proposed ruling, released on Tuesday, would probably result in more school districts found to have “significant disproportionality” in terms of the number of racial or ethnic minority students facing school disciplinary measures or being placed outside the general classroom.

“We have a moral and a civil rights obligation to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed regardless of background or whether the student has a disability,” King said. “A law exists for the purpose of protecting all students, and we owe it to them and to ourselves all of the law’s provisions. But the data we see makes it very clear that we as a country are not living up to the intent of the law.”

In accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), districts that are found to have significant disproportionality are required to allocate 15 percent of IDEA, Part B funding toward early intervention services for students who may require behavioral or academic support to help them succeed in a general classroom setting. Currently, states may define their own standard of disproportionality.

A Government Accountability Office report from 2013 found that only 2 to 3 percent of all school districts across the nation reported an overrepresentation of minority students in special education. In 2009 to 2010, 356 school districts provided the early intervention services required under IDEA. According to the report, half of the 356 districts were located in five states; 73 were in Louisiana.

“GAO found that the way that some states actually defined overrepresentation made it unlikely that any states would be identified and thus required to provide those critical early intervening services,” King said. In the report, GAO recommended a standardized approach across the states to defining disproportionality.

The Education Department said that its data suggest that, if the definition of disproportionality were to be standardized, more districts would be found to have significant disproportionality.

“it’s imperative that states properly identify districts with significant disproportionality,” said Michael K. Yudin, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services. “This isn’t about identifying bad actors or laying blame, but it’s making sure that communities with significant disproportionality have a chance to take a step back to understand the data, to rethink how they’re providing services to youth who are struggling in school.”

NAACP Washington Bureau director Hilary O. Shelton applauded the proposed ruling and said that it would be important for cities like Flint, Michigan, which is 55 percent African-American and where children have been exposed to unsafe levels of lead in contaminated drinking water. “This will be important to cities like Flint and elsewhere, in which we know there may be large sectors of the population that can really benefit from early intervention,” Shelton said.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

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