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Study: School Segregation Drives Racial Gaps in Special Ed Placement

August 2, 2019

Black and Hispanic students are placed into special education classes more often when attending majority-white schools, according to a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

At the same time, minority students are much less likely to be identified as needing special education in schools that are mostly minority, where they are surrounded by students of the same race.

The research, co-authored by School of Education and Social Policy Dean David Figlio and alumna Claudia Persico (PhD16) of American University, also suggests that black and Hispanic students are put into special education programs less frequently than white students who have similar health backgrounds.

“Our findings add to an increasing body of literature that suggests failing to account for health differences could unintentionally induce schools and districts to reduce access to special education services for those who might benefit from them,” the researchers wrote.

Roughly 6.4 million public school students in the U.S. receive special education services each year at an estimated cost of nearly $40 billion. Special education provides accommodations, and in many cases, treatment for students with learning disabilities. 

The researchers, which include Michigan State University’s Todd Elder and Scott Imberman, analyzed birth and education records for 869,000 children born in Florida between 1992 and 2002.

The results indicated substantial variation by disability. In fourth grade, both Hispanic and black students are significantly underrepresented in speech-language impairments. Black students are underrepresented in specific learning disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and physical disabilities. In contrast, black students are substantially overrepresented in intellectual disabilities.

Prior special education research didn’t look at economic and health data such as birth weight, gestational age, and complications and abnormalities at birth. This information is critical because it reveals newborn health issues that could determine whether a child needs special education later on in life, the researchers said.

The research also is the first to link students’ special education needs with a school’s racial demographics. It revealed that special education rates weren’t necessarily about a student’s race – but rather about how that student’s race compares to the school’s racial makeup, said Michigan State’s Imberman, professor of economics and education policy.

The findings suggest that schools are more likely to incorrectly say a student has disabilities when he or she is racially different from the student body as a whole.

That means that policies related to disproportionality in special education, such as the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act, may need to be reexamined so that students who need special education services are getting them.

 The study provides suggestive evidence that the findings are unlikely to stem from differences in resources, a family’s income level or achievement. “Our results are consistent with heightened awareness among school officials of disabilities in students who are racially and ethnically distinct from the majority race in the school,” the researchers wrote.