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Is Special Education Racist?

In an attempt to provide a quality education for students with special needs, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975.  But from the beginning, there were charges that the classes were disproportionately being used as a repository for black students who were not successful in traditional classes. The fact that blacks were 1.4 times more likely to be in special education than all other races combined seemed to confirm this complaint. A new study, however, suggests just the opposite is true ("Is Special Education Racist? The New York Times, Jun. 24).

Compared with white students with similar academic achievement, behavior and family economic resources, black students are actually underrepresented.  The disabilities not being treated consist of learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, health impairments and emotional disturbances. One explanation is that schools have low expectations for black students, which lead them to overlook the neurological basis of low academic achievement and disruptive behavior.

As a result of the new study, schools will be inclined to focus exclusively on the percentage of black students in special education in order to avoid lawsuits. This will only compound the problem because reluctance to refer black students for special-education evaluation will shortchange them by denying them beneficial services. It seems schools are damned if they do and damned if they don't.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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