n The Politics of Autism, I write about special education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Puerto Rico has been operating under a court order to improve special education for 37 years. As of last year, 33.4 percent of public school students in the commonwealth are enrolled in such programs, compared with a national average of 13 percent in 2015, the last year for which there are figures. But while more numerous, Puerto Rico’s special education students fare far worse. Some 93 percent of them scored below the basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test—nationally, that figure was 51 percent.
[Puerto Rico's education secretary Julia] Keleher said Puerto Rico’s special education program produces “terrible” results. Almost four decades ago, a judge made a similar observation in a ruling that the commonwealth had failed to meet its constitutional obligations to disabled students.
When the lawsuit was filed in 1980, only 3.9 percent of Puerto Rico’s students were classified as eligible for special education, compared with a national average of around 10 percent at the time. Keleher credits the lawsuit, begun just five years after she was born, with having forced the department to identify more students with disabilities. But she added that the current percentage of students designated as needing special education, more than eight times that of 1980, is “off the rails.”
Pressure from the lawsuit may have led educators to over-enroll, she said. Students were classified as being suitable for special education without sufficient screening. It was an impulse to err “on the side of, ‘Let me just help you, because we don’t want to be accused of not helping,’ ” Keleher said.
There are other theories. Joyce Davila, the founder of Puerto Rico’s Autism Alliance, thinks the current 33 percent figure may be accurate—reflecting the high level of disability that stems from the island’s poverty. Susan Therriault, a managing researcher with the American Institutes of Research who has worked in Puerto Rico, said the high percentage may reflect the large number of students enrolled in private schools, some of which she claimed have a reputation for being reluctant to admit students with disabilities. As a result, an artificially large contingent of kids with special needs are left in public schools.