Racial Bias in Pennsylvania Special Education

If you are an African-American or Hispanic male in a predominantly White public school in Pennsylvania, there’s a good chance you have been labeled as “Learning Disabled.” That is the major finding of a recent analysis conducted for The Commonwealth Foundation on the role of race in assigning special education disability labels to students in Pennsylvania public schools.

Education researchers have known for some time that minorities are over-represented in special education. For example, while African-American students account for only 16 percent of the U.S. student population, they represent 32 percent of the students in programs for mild mental retardation. In Pennsylvania, not only are minority special education rates higher, but they are highest for minorities who attend primarily White public schools-even after controlling for a variety of factors such as school spending and student poverty.

Although the number of clinically disabled students has remained nearly constant, the number of students classified with “specific learning disabilities”-which involve more subjective diagnoses-has more than tripled. More disturbingly, the very law designed to end the segregation and neglect of special education students has resulted in the increased segregation and neglect of African-American and Hispanic students across the country.

Pennsylvania, sadly, is no exception.

For example, African-American males attending Pennsylvania public schools in which at least 3 out of 4 students are White are nearly 89 percent more likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed, mentally retarded or having a specific learning disability than African-American males attending schools with student bodies where fewer than 1 out of 4 students are White. Hispanic males in similar environments are nearly 33 percent more likely to be so labeled.

What can explain these large disparities?

Recent medical research into learning disabilities demonstrates a strong link between ineffective reading instruction and later learning disabilities. An analysis by a team of medical doctors, led by Dr. Reid Lyon of the National Institute for Health, estimates that nearly 2 million children have learning disabilities that could have been prevented with proper, rigorous early reading instruction.

Indeed, national reading tests reveal that American public schools are failing to teach reading to elementary students at alarming rates. Most troubling, however, is that 60 percent of low-income, African-American fourth graders tested scored “below basic” on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress reading examination. Pennsylvanians should therefore be outraged-not shocked-that learning disability rates are higher among minority students given the link between basic literacy and learning disabilities.

But unless there is some reason to believe that predominantly White schools in Pennsylvania fail to teach literacy to minorities at substantially higher rates than non-White schools, the literacy/disability link cannot explain these labeling disparities. The grim prospect that Pennsylvania policymakers must face is that public schools are using special education as a sort of internal segregation mechanism to hide educational malpractice or latent racism.

Although special education is primarily a federal mandate, states have taken the lead in addressing these problems. Florida, for example, has taken steps to reverse the perverse incentives involved in the over-identification of students as being disabled by making every disabled student in the state eligible for a scholarship to allow them to attend a public or private school of their choice.

Known as the McKay Scholarship Program, this law has proven to be very popular with special education parents while reducing the incentive to misidentify children as having disabilities without adding costs to the taxpayers or schools.

Although some disabled students in Pennsylvania already attend private schools at public expense to get the education they need, private school placement is only accessible if a district agrees to it, or if parents can afford to hire an attorney and successfully sue a district to allow the private school option. This is not enough. The choices of parents-not the caprice of districts-should determine the best schools for their children.

By adopting a statewide scholarship system for special education children modeled after Florida’s program, Pennsylvania could immediately provide help to many of the more than 232,000 disabled students in the Commonwealth. The program can be at least revenue neutral from its inception and can eventually save taxpayers money each year thereafter by reducing the incidence of mislabeling children.

Instead of allowing schools to continue the over-identification of students as “disabled”-particularly minority males-Pennsylvania policymakers should provide these children with greater educational options to escape the lifetime imprisonment of an inadequate education.

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Dr. Matthew Ladner, an adjunct scholar with the Commonwealth Foundation, is the former director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute. Permission is hereby granted to reprint in whole or in part, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.