From Education Week, October 12, 2005
By Christina A. Samuels
A new provision of federal law taking effect this school year allows, and in some cases requires, school districts to focus some of their federal special education money on reducing the enrollment of minority students in such programs.
The provision, contained in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requires some districts to spend as much as 15 percent of that federal aid on what are called “early intervening” services, which are meant to bolster the achievement of students before they are officially referred for special education.
Educators generally support the provision but some special education advocates worry that the proposed regulations surrounding the provision may not be clear, or could divert federal money from the students who are most in need of services.
When Congress previously reauthorized the IDEA, in 1997, it added a provision that required districts to monitor the racial and ethnic breakdown of students who receive special education services. Advocates have long argued that special education has become a holding place for minority students.
A provision in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act says that districts may use up to 15 percent of their federal special education funding for “early-intervening services,” such as literary instruction, before they place students in special education.
K-3 pupils: Although such services may be provided to any student, the law encourages districts to focus on pupils in grades K-3 who need additional academic and behavioral support to succeed.
Minority Students: Districts that have determined that they have a disproportionate share of minority students in special education must use the entire 15 percent for such early-intervening services. The law encourages districts to target such services toward children in minority groups that are overrepresented in special education.
In the 2004 reauthorization, lawmakers added the new provision to take the monitoring process a step further. Districts with an overrepresentation of minority group members in special education are now required to set aside 15 percent of their federal aid for students, particularly those in grades K-3, who need “additional academic and behavioral support to succeed in a general education environment,” according to the law.
Districts that do not have minority students overrepresented in special education can still use up to 15 percent of their federal special education money for early-intervening services, but they are not required to do so.
States are given the discretion under the revised IDEA to determine what constitutes overrepresentation for the purposes of the provision. Many do so by comparing the proportion of minority students in special education categories with the proportion of minority students in the overall school population. Other states compare how frequently minority students are assigned to certain special education categories, compared with how often white students are assigned to those categories.
Nationally, black students are overrepresented in certain special education categories compared with the student population as a whole, according to a 2003 report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs.
About 17.4 percent of black students are considered mentally retarded, compared with 10.3 percent of all students. Also, about 11.3 percent of black students are considered emotionally disturbed, compared to 8.1 percent overall.
Programs Under Way
By reaching out to members of minority groups earlier, supporters of the new provision say, the numbers of minority students in special education should drop, because they would be receiving extra academic help sooner.
“This is an item that Virginia has supported from the get-go,” said H. Douglas Cox, the state’s assistant superintendent for special education and student services. Mr. Cox is also the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Thirty of his state’s 133 school districts are required to use 15 percent of their federal special education funds for early-intervening services, he said.
W. Mabrey Whetstone, Alabama’s director of special education services, said his state has worked aggressively for the past five years to reduce its overrepresentation of black male students classified as mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed. Nine of the state’s 66 districts will be required this year to spend 15 percent of their federal aid on early-intervening services.
Several programs are already under way that would qualify as early-intervening services, Mr. Whetstone said. They include a teacher-training program that helps educators adapt their lesson plans for particular student needs and early reading and math initiatives.
Experts say that children who receive inadequate instruction, especially in basic subjects like reading, are more at risk for being wrongly identified later as having mental retardation or learning disabilities.
“If you’re overidentifying [students for special education], there ought to be something you’re doing” to address the issue, Mr. Whetstone said. The funding helps draw attention to the problem, he said.
The problem with the set-aside is that the federal government is not providing its fair share of total special education funding, said Deborah A. Ziegler, the assistant executive director for public policy for the Council for Exceptional Children. The Arlington-based council is the nation’s largest special education advocacy group.
“We support the idea of early intervention,” Ms. Ziegler said. However, her group believes that special education services are already underfunded by the federal government.
“We’re struggling to provide the services we need to under IDEA,” she added. “Do we rob Peter to pay Paul? We need more money in both pots.”
Mr. Cox of the state directors’ group said he can understand the perspective of the CEC.
“But if we can work on some of the early-literacy issues, maybe you wouldn’t have to refer children to special ed,” he said, giving an example of an intervention that the set-aside could support.
DanielJ.Losen, a legal and policy-research associate with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, said he believes the U.S. Department of Education has not provided enough guidance on the IDEA’s 15 percent provision.
He said he was concerned about how the money would be spent by districts which find they have an overrepresentation of minority students in special education classes.
The money is intended primarily for students who have no special education classification. But, once a district finds that it has enough overrepresentation to trigger the automatic 15 percent set-aside, he believes that at least some of the money should be spent on programs for the children who are already in special education, since the district has already noted a problem.
“How are you going to help address the issue, if the kids who triggered [the 15 percent set-aside] get none of that money?” Mr. Losen said.
The regulations should say that the law will not prevent districts from spending the set-aside money on students who happen to already be in special education, he believes.
Ronald Felton, a former head of special education for the Miami-Dade County, Fla., district, and an educator who has been involved in special education for 30 years, said that the focus on overrepresentation of minorities is positive.
However, there needs to be more research on the issue, he believes. For instance, he said, “we’re still arguing on how to measure disproportionality.” And, if a district has overrepresentation problem, it might not need to divert a full 15 percent of its federal special education funding to the problem, he said, but the law still requires it.
“The 15 percent [option] is a good thing,” said Mr. Felton, who retired from the 370,000-student district in July. “The mandate is a problem.”