Education Department to Delay Addressing Race Disparities in Special Ed

WASHINGTON (CN) – A long delayed Obama-era rule intended to force states to address racial disparities in special education will now be postponed until 2020, the Education Department announced Monday.

In 2016, then-President Barack Obama instructed the department to review states which had disproportionate ratios of minority students flagged for special education services.

In a 41-page report, the department confirmed that minority students were more likely to be identified as having a disability, and more likely to face harsher discipline, than were their white classmates.

The report also revealed a prevalence of segregation in restrictive classroom settings and situations in which special needs students are removed from a standard classroom setting and placed into a more regimented or highly monitored one.

The rule directing states to intervene and address these disparities was set to go into effect in July 2018.

On Monday, the Education Department announced it would postpone enforcement of the rule for another two years because several officials had been told of “concerns” about the policy.

“Because of the concern raised, the department is looking closely at this rule and has determined that, while this review takes place, it is prudent to delay implementation for two years,” said Liz Hill, a department spokeswoman.

Hill also said the department will also open a new public comment period on the rule.

It is unclear what the “concerns” were and the department declined to elaborate Tuesday.

The goal, under the Obama-era department, was to identify “overrepresentation in misidentification” after a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office also showed that the federal mandate, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, was not “fulfilling its intended purpose, resulting in limited implementation of early intervening services.”

At that time, less than 3 percent of districts nationwide were identified as having “significant disproportionality.”

This low rate was not truly reflective of the national problem, the Obama-era department argued, saying it failed to accurately represent the scope of disparity in special education.

Black and Native American children, in particular, were identified as special needs at a higher rate than their peers, the department found.

Research also showed disparities in disciplinary action. With the exception of Latino and Asian-American students, more than 2-in-4 minority boys served by the IDEA mandate received out of school suspension.

For girls, the rate was marginally better: 1-in-5 girls of color with disabilities received suspension, the department reported.

An analysis released by the Education Department in September 2017 suggested nearly half of all school districts in the U.S. would be flagged as having disproportionate numbers of minorities in their special education classrooms should the rule be enforced.

Addressing this disparity will come at a high cost, the department said.

Over the next 10 years, an estimated $50 million to $91 million will have to be allocated to address the problem, the department said.

In an interview Tuesday with Courthouse News, Rich Robison, executive director at the Federation for Children with Special Needs, said he was very concerned that about the delay.

“This has been a chronic issue for many years,” he said. “There’s a certain part of me that says for most people, this doesn’t matter. But for those kids who are in circumstances in schools where they are probably low income and have other kinds of cultural and linguistic barriers to deal with and the schools are not being identified – it is a real problem.”

Robison suggested the proposed delay is rooted in “an interest in deregulating, particularly from the federal level.”

“The pushback, I would assume, is coming from school administrators or state legislators when resources are tight and budgets are tight,” he said.

While the idea of a multimillion-dollar investment may give some sticker shock, Robison did not appear surprised by the figure.

“We’ve never really seen full funding of IDEA at the federal level,” he noted.

Robison said the federal is advocating for “more appropriate services” in the context of general education and ” to make that robust enough that each student can thrive appropriately.”

“It’s really about leveling the playing field so every child has a fair chance,” he said. “We know kids that don’t have as many resources available to them or for whom those resources are limited because of economics, culture, language — they’ve got a double duty to overcome.”

“We’re arguing with schools in general. Every child deserves a chance,” Robison said.

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