Voices in Education

Income Differences Alone Cannot Explain the Overrepresentation of Students of Color in Special Education
Students of color—particularly, Black students—are more likely to be identified for special education than their White peers. Despite forty years of court cases, state and federal regulations, and academic journal articles focused on this issue, this disparity persists.

Education researchers propose two major hypotheses about the racial disparity in special education placement. Some researchers attribute the high rates of special education placement among students of color to systemic racial biases built into the structure of our communities and schools, including educators’ implicit and explicit beliefs about students and special education. Others suggest that these differences in special education placement reflect true disparities in the prevalence of disability among White students and students of color. Some recent work has even argued that rates of special education placement among students of color are not high enough. These researchers argue that income-related differences in the experiences of students of color and their White counterparts lead to rates of disability that exceed the observed differences in special education placement.

This debate has real consequences for children: although special education provides legal rights, access to needed accommodations, and other services to students with disabilities, it may also come with stigma, lowered expectations, and segregation from peers. If a student has a disability and requires special education services to access the curriculum, the benefits of special education may outweigh the risks. However, if a student is identified for special education because of racial bias, they may experience the negative consequences without enjoying the benefits.

In our article in the Winter 2019 issue of the Harvard Educational Review, we attempt to inform this discussion in two ways. First, we use individual-level data on income and race for every public school student in three states to examine whether racial disparities are found in who is identified for special education placement even for students in the same income group. We then explore implications of the special education label for the educational experiences of students of color.

We find that racial disparities in special education identification persist even after we control for family income, and in fact are more concentrated among students who do not live in low-income households (i.e., students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch). We also find that racial disparities do not appear to exist for disabilities that are typically diagnosed by medical professionals, such as being blind or deaf, but do exist for disabilities that are typically identified in school, such as learning, intellectual, or emotional disabilities.

But it’s not sufficient to stop there. We then explore the experiences of students of different races once they enter the special education system. In addition to being identified at a higher rate, we find that students of color who are identified as having a disability are more likely to be educated in segregated settings than White students with the same type of disability and within the same income group. For students of color, this means less time in general education classrooms and fewer opportunities to learn and thrive along with the rest of their peers.

The findings in this paper build on evidence that the US public education system does not successfully meet the needs of students of color, regardless of their economic status. Our data indicate that students of color continue to experience profound racial injustices in their interactions with the special education system that cannot be solely attributed to poverty. Yet these data cannot identify which underlying problems in the general education system drive these injustices, nor how to fix them. Big questions remain: What supports do teachers need? Will more racially diverse hiring and retention practices in schools help public education better serve students of color, in and out of special education? How can schools better support families of all races—and especially parents of students of color—to ensure that every child, with or without a disability, gets the education they deserve?

It is our hope that this paper helps to push forward the conversation on reducing racial discrimination in US schools and ensuring that the special education system reduces barriers and increases opportunities for all students to succeed, in school and beyond.

About the Author: Todd Grindal is a senior principal education researcher at SRI Education, where he studies the impact of policies and programs on young children and children with disabilities. He was a coauthor on work that was awarded the 2016 Applied Research Award for Advances in Methodology by the American Education Research Association and the 2018 Outstanding Article award from the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness. Before beginning his doctoral studies, Grindal worked for six years as an elementary and preschool teacher and school administrator.

Thomas Hehir is professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr. Hehir served as director of the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs from 1993 to 1999. He also served as director of special education for Boston Public Schools from 1983 to 1987 and the associate superintendent for the Chicago Public Schools from 1990 to 1993.

Laura Schifter is a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, teaching courses on federal education policy and on special education. She is also a fellow with the Century Foundation, where she writes about issues impacting students with disabilities. She previously worked as a senior education and disability adviser for Representative George Miller (D-CA) on the Committee on Education and the Workforce and served as an education fellow for Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. She also taught elementary school in San Francisco.

Gabriel Schwartz (https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8299-1407) is a PhD candidate in population health sciences at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Schwartz specializes in the social epidemiology of urban health, examining how social policy, social stratification, and neighborhoods interactively shape health inequalities; his dissertation explores how eviction impacts children’s health and development. Prior to beginning his PhD, Schwartz worked in policy evaluation and as a health advocate.