DOE to school districts: Address racial disparities in special education

computer screen showing the ED.Gov websiteThe U.S. Department of Education proposed new regulations [PDF] February 23, detailing new steps that school districts must take to reduce racial disparities in the identification, placement and discipline of students in special education programs.

“We have a moral and a civil rights obligation to ensure that all students, with and without disabilities, are provided the tools they need to succeed, regardless of background,” Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a news release. “(The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) exists for the purpose of ensuring that students get the unique services they need, and we owe it to them and to ourselves to uphold all of the law’s provisions.”

Under IDEA, states are required to identify school districts with a “significant disproportionality” in how they provide special education services between students of color and their peers. Districts that meet this standard three straight years in a row are required to set aside 15 percent of their IDEA funds to reduce these inequities.

Prior regulations, however, left it to the states to set their own standards for identifying significant disproportionalities. A 2013 Government Accountability Office report found that states flagged just two percent of school districts nationwide under this system, a figure widely believed to be unrealistically low.

“These proposed regulations specifically address the well-documented and detrimental over-identification of certain students for special education services, with particular concern that over-identification results in children being placed in more restrictive environments and not taught to challenging academic standards,” the DOE wrote in the regulations’ executive summary.

The new proposal creates one universal identification standard for all states and school districts. Further, it clarifies that states must track disparities in student suspensions and expulsions. Prior studies have found that nearly one in four students of color with disabilities are suspended each school year, according to the proposal.

Finally, the rule clarifies that states can use their set-aside funds to address disparities for preschool students, as opposed to just students at the grade school level.

“As the nation’s largest provider of legal representation to students with disabilities, the nationwide network of Protection and Advocacy agencies believe that the problems addressed by this proposed rule is highly significant and worthy of federal attention,” said Curt Decker executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, in a news release. “We appreciate the effort that has gone into the development of the proposed rule.”

Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, is the designated protection and advocacy agency in Washington, and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.