Racial Bias in Pennsylvania Special Education

Executive Summary

The burgeoning special education system in the United States is in crisis. In the time since Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975, the number of American children enrolled in special education programs has ballooned by 65 percent, to about 6.1 million in the 1999-2000 academic year, or 8.2 percent of the entire U.S. student population. Part of the reason for the stupendous growth of special education has been the large increase of students being classified under the category known as “learning disabled.”

The answer to this large increase lies in the nature of how students are diagnosed as “learning disabled.” Unlike clinical disabilities, which require objective, medical diagnoses, learning disabilities involve necessarily subjective evaluations. That is to say, whether or not a given child is diagnosed as “learning disabled” may depend on factors that go beyond an observable medical condition. Some research argues that as many as 70 percent of “learning disabled” students actually suffer from “teaching deficiency,” a condition that can be prevented through rigorous early reading instruction.

A growing body of research also suggests that a significant factor in learning disability diagnoses may be a student’s race. Education researchers have known for some time that minorities are over-represented in a number of special education categories. For example, a 2002 Harvard University Civil Rights Project study found that not only are there startlingly large racial disparities in special education overall, but black students are three times as likely to be labeled as mentally retarded than whites.

This study’s purpose is to determine if districts in Pennsylvania label minority children as learning disabled in a racially neutral fashion, and to recommend actions Keystone State legislators can take to remedy any racial biases that do exist in the state’s special education system. The report considers three broad possible causes for higher minority enrollment rates in Pennsylvania:

  • Perverse financial incentives for placing students in special education programs.
  • School districts’ use of disability labels as a method for increasing standardized test scores on highstakes examinations.
  • Simple racism.

Turning conventional wisdom about the contributing causes of learning disabilities on its head, this study shows that race is the primary determining factor behind learning disability labels. Even after controlling for school spending, student poverty, community poverty, and other factors, this study finds a common pattern of predominantly white public school districts in Pennsylvania placing minority students into special education at significantly higher rates. Specifically:

  • Disability rates for African-American male students are 88.9 percent higher.
  • Disability rates for Hispanic male students are 32.9 percent higher.
  • Predominantly White districts label 39.1 percent fewer White students as disabled.

Such practices are obviously deeply ingrained and will not be remedied by toothless regulations or minor tweaks of the existing system by government entities and bureaucrats. Indeed, governments at all levels had and have an obligation to prevent this type of discrimination. They have failed, and fundamental reforms will be necessary. Fortunately, powerful tools are available to Pennsylvania policymakers to combat the perverse financial incentives for districts to mislabel minority children.

Although some disabled students 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 supply of school spaces for disabled children. Pennsylvania should adopt a statewide scholarship system for special education modeled after Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program. The scholarships would:

  • Provide immediate help to more than 232,000 disabled students by giving their parents the opportunity to choose the best possible school for them.
  • Be at least revenue neutral, like the McKay Scholarship Program; and,
  • Save the state money each year by reducing the incidence of mislabeling.

From the perspective of school administrators, a special education school choice program would provide a countervailing pressure to whatever perverse incentives motivate incorrect labeling. In cases where a disability label has been correctly applied, parents should be free to seek the best educational services possible for their children whether in the public or private school sector. In cases where disability labels have been incorrectly applied, there still is no doubt that terrible harm has been inflicted. Such students deserve (at a minimum) every opportunity to make up for lost time in the best educational setting to suit their needs.

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Dr. Matthew Ladner, an adjunct scholar with te Commonwealth Foundation, is the former Directoer of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.