June 6, 2016

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The Advocate, June 2016

by Sasha Pudelski, assistant director, policy & advocacy, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

Racial and ethnic disproportionality in special education is a complex issue that cannot be solved quickly or easily. It differs dramatically both across and within districts and states, and is linked to district finances, student and community demographics, and teacher and administrator training and capacity.

Recent federal investigations have determined that states are not appropriately identifying districts that have significant racial and ethnic disproportionality in special education. As a result, the U.S. Department of Education proposed regulations this spring that would dramatically increase the number of states and districts that must set-aside IDEA Part B funding to remedy significant racial and ethnic disproportionality.

Based on the Department’s projections, 23 states will require between 50-80 percent of all districts to set aside 15 percent of their federal share for early intervening services to remedy significant racial and ethnic disproportionality in at least one disability, educational environment or discipline category. Given the under-funding of IDEA and the lack of resources to address special education at the state and local levels, the financial consequences of requiring districts to redirect federal resources away from the provision of special education and related services and towards early intervening services cannot be understated.

One of the most deeply concerning aspects of the proposed regulation is that it would require the calculation of significant disproportionality to be accomplished through a cell size of 10 students. The Department argues that this cell-size for a subgroup of students is appropriate and will lead to many more districts being labeled as having significant racial and ethnic disproportionality. We certainly concur with this conclusion but believe that using a cell size of 10 will require many districts to set aside resources to address a problem they do not need to solve. In particular, small rural districts will be greatly impacted by the use of a cell size of 10. A large family moving in and out of a district could influence whether or not they have access to 15 percent of its IDEA funds for special education services.

AASA also raised concernswith how districts with specialized programs would be impacted by the new regulation as well as districts with robust open-enrollment policies, a substantial population of migrant students or students in foster care, or districts that have experienced a major health or environmental crisis. A review of comments in response to the proposed regulations found that the vast majority of comments were negative and were written by school leaders, school personnel and school groups. It is our hope that the Department considers this feedback from the education community before promulgating these regulations.

AASA acknowledges the current system of measuring significant disproportionality must be reconsidered, as 21 states failed to find any districts as having significant disproportionality. But, more of the same does not make sound public policy. It is unknown whether districts that have set-aside IDEA funds for early intervening services to address this complicated issue have found much success through this approach.

It’s clear that researchers have yet to find a silver bullet solution to reduce significant disproportionality in identification and placement, although progress has been made on discipline. The approach districts must take to address disproportionality is multifaceted and requires resources that most lack.

The Department’s sledgehammer regulatory approach may only exacerbate inequities in school resources, which is the root problem facing districts with significant racial and ethnic disproportionality. As we urge Congress to take up the reauthorization of IDEA, addressing this important problem in a meaningful and reasonable way will be a top priority for AASA.

As we look towards reauthorization, AASA has launched a new blog called A New IDEA to share thoughtful ideas about the reauthorization of IDEA by legal experts, practitioners and special education researchers.


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