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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Inequality in Special Education

In The Politics of Autism, I write about the experiences of different economicethnic and racial groups.   Inequality is a big part of the story. 

Todd E. Elder, David N. Figlio, Scott A. Imberman. and Claudia L. Persico at Education Next:
Research has consistently found that minority students are identified with disabilities at higher rates than white students, based on straightforward comparisons of classification rates across racial groups. Such comparisons are how federal special education law defines and regulates “disproportionality” in the share of students identified with a disability within schools and districts, which triggers increased monitoring and intervention by states.

But recent research has shown that the story becomes more complex when minority students are compared not to all white students, but to white students of similar socioeconomic status. These studies find that minority students are less likely than otherwise similar white students to be identified for special education. This finding raises the possibility that Black and Hispanic students may be less likely to receive the specialized services they need. Is “disproportionality,” as it is typically understood and measured, the real problem? What role does school segregation play in special education rates?

We explore these questions by examining the birth records and eventual special education status of every child born in Florida between 1992 and 2002. The birth records capture both infant and maternal health, as well as demographics and economic circumstances, allowing us to compare students born into similar circumstances whose observable characteristics differ only by race and the racial compositions of their local schools.

Our results show that, by 4th grade, the disability rate among Black students is 13 percent lower than it would have been if they were identified at the same rate as white students born into similar economic and health circumstances. For Hispanics, the overall identification rate is 8 percent lower than what we would predict for similarly situated white students.

These gaps play out differently based on the racial composition of schools. Black and Hispanic students are placed in special education more often than their peers when they are in majority-white schools. But in predominately minority schools, when surrounded by other non-white students, Black and Hispanic students are less likely to be placed in special education. In 4th grade, a Black student attending school where more than 90 percent of students are minorities is roughly 9 percentage points less likely to be identified as disabled than an observationally identical Black student in a school with fewer than 10 percent minorities.

Our estimates suggest that minority students in heavily-minority school groups are underrepresented in special education relative to their underlying incidence of disability. While public debate has fixated on the harmful effects of too many Black and Hispanic students being identified as having special needs, our results echo the recent research suggesting that, in fact, too few minority students are being provided the educational services they need to thrive. Given ongoing public focus on equity and disproportionality, and the longstanding goal of closing gaps in educational achievement between white and non-white students, such widespread underrepresentation has substantial implications.