Why Minority Students Lack Access to Special Education Services

Are students being unfairly sentenced to an education bound to remedial services and stigma, based on their race?

Not necessarily. In fact, new data suggest that the rate of special education identification for students of color in elementary and middle school aren’t high enough, even though special education is garnering a reputation as the new institutional racism — a way for schools to narrow the opportunities available to minority students.

According to the 36th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), from 2003 to 2012, between eight and nine percent of all students ages 6–21 received services for a disability; if services were distributed equally among student populations, this would mean that eight to nine percent of students from all racial backgrounds would be represented.

Hard Numbers and Conventional Wisdom

And yet, this is not even remotely the case. Data from a 2010 report, Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups, reveal that in fact, 14 percent of American Indian students, 12 percent of black students, and 9 percent of Hispanic students received services under IDEA, as compared to 8 percent of white students and only 5 percent of Asian students. Some have speculated that a disproportionate number of minority students end up in special education because, according to H. Richard Milner IV, “educators either don’t want to deal with them, don’t know how to deal with them, or don’t know how to be responsive to them.” Instead, schools opt for an alternate curriculum via special education. This leads to poorer academic outcomes and higher dropout rates, outcomes that transform students into what Milner calls “victims of remediation,” in part because of the stigma of being classified as such. But those who are misclassified as needing special education are not the only victims; stretching special education budgets to cover students who do not require it means that less funding and resources are available for those who do.

New Numbers and a Bigger Picture

The above numbers don’t tell the whole story. A recent study by Morgan, et. al. suggests that minority students are not, in fact, overrepresented in special education — but are actually underrepresented when a number of factors are considered. While it’s true that a staggering proportion of black and Hispanic students qualify for special education, it’s also true that an even more staggering proportion of black and Hispanic students grew up in poverty; 77 percent of Hispanic students and 74 percent of black students qualified for free and reduced lunch, according to the 2010 Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups report. This means that more minority students are exposed to risk factors that increase the likelihood of a disability, such as low birth weight, lead poisoning, substance abuse during pregnancy, and poor access to health care, which were the factors controlled for in the study.

Morgan and his team catalogued those intertwined factors concerning race and education and found that current education-based interventions for non-white students were not over and above what they should be, but rather insufficient to meet the need of those who actually require the services. In fact, black children were found to be underdiagnosed for autism, learning disabilities (LD), and ADHD, following covariate (possibly predictive) adjustment for IQ, prior academic achievement, behavior, maternal education, and other factors. Based on this adjustment, black, Hispanic, and Asian students were much less likely to receive special education services from kingergarten through fifth grade than otherwise similar white students. Students who did not speak English as a first language, although they may have struggled for years with a learning disability in both their native language and English, continued to be identified as English Language Learners (ELL) rather than special education students.

Social and Cultural Obstacles

According to the study, there are a number of possible reasons for this discrepancy between need and intervention. “Frog ponding” may be one of them. This refers to the scenario in which underresourced schools with a large population of students with significant needs only identify the most severe cases because they can’t afford to do otherwise. As a result, many students who may ordinarily qualify for services are left without appropriate educational support.

Cultural factors may be another reason. Parents who are fearful of the stigma that comes with having a child who is identified as having a disability may refuse services. And according to the study, minority parents often have fewer interactions with professionals who are able to diagnose disabilities, meaning that a disability could go unrecognized for years. The study also found that those families whose child had been diagnosed were less likely to seek empirically-based treatment.

The issue is obviously complicated, and we can only work with the information we have available. We know that a great number of minority students are in need of academic support, and the model we have to address significant academic concerns is through special education. But perhaps rather than rethink special education, as communities we should be looking at how we can alleviate the risk factors that many minority families face — and then work to ensure that all children in need of accommodations or Individualized Education Programs have access to those supports.

Read the latest updates and opinions on education news, and use Noodle to ask questions about how schools near you support special education students.

Questions or feedback? Write to us at [email protected], or leave a comment below.