In 1975, Congress passed what is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Since then, the number of students in special-education programs nationwide has grown 65 percent, to more than 6 million.
While 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 Hispanic and African-American students across the country.
Sadly, Arizona is no exception.
In a new Goldwater Institute study, Race and Disability: Racial Bias in Arizona Special Education, I present data showing that race, not student poverty or low school spending, is the primary determining factor when assigning a disability label to children. And, predominantly white districts label minority students at substantially higher rates than predominantly minority districts do.
In predominantly white districts, disability rates for Hispanic students are 48 percent higher than in predominantly minority districts, while disability rates for African-American students are 29 percent higher. Yet these same predominantly white districts label 34 percent fewer white students as disabled than predominantly minority districts do.
My findings are corroborated by a growing body of research. In a 2001 study published by the Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute, Dr. Christopher Hammons and I discovered a nationwide pattern of predominantly white school districts placing minority students into special-education programs at significantly higher rates than predominantly minority districts.
Dr. Judith Heumann, assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education in the Clinton administration, attested to the racial discrimination inherent in America's special education systems. During a 1996 PBS interview, she said, "We know that minority children are more likely not to receive the kinds of services they need in the regular ed system and in the special ed system. And special ed is used as a place to move kids from a regular classroom out into a separate setting."
Furthermore, research suggests the current special education "bounty funding formula" unintentionally rewards the segregation of students labeled as learning disabled.
Under the bounty system, state governments pay school districts more money for each student classified as disabled. During the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA, Congress repudiated this system. Congress now distributes federal funds to the states in a formulaic lump-sum based on a demographic profile to remove any perverse incentives to label children as disabled. Sixteen states have followed suit. Arizona is not one of them.
Manhattan Institute scholars Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster estimate nearly 10 percent of Arizona's disability labels are a result of the bounty system. That is, more than 8,400 students in Arizona have been wrongly labeled and segregated. Mislabeling costs the state an estimated $50 million each year. The cost to those mislabeled and segregated children is incalculable.
Perhaps Congress will pass useful reforms as part of the 2003 reauthorization of the IDEA. But Arizona cannot wait for Washington to act while Hispanic and African-American children are misclassified as learning disabled - not when powerful tools exist to combat the perverse financial incentives to mislabel these children.
One such tool is to build upon existing Arizona policy to give more options to the parents of special education students. State law permits an estimated 1,170 special education students to attend private schools at public expense.
By expanding on this practice with a revenue-neutral voucher system such as Florida's McKay Scholarship Program, thousands of Arizona students could get the educational services they so desperately need. The McKay scholarships are very popular with Florida's special-education parents, and more than 9,000 Florida students have taken advantage of them.
Thanks to the scholarship program, the risk of losing students - and their accompanying per-pupil funding) - forces districts to think twice before "gaming" the special education system.
While the Arizona Legislature cannot rewrite federal special education law, legislators can and should outlaw the bounty system's perverse financial incentives. In so doing, they would save tens of millions of dollars each year.
Better still, legislators should replace a system replete with racial discrimination and perverse financial incentives with one that offers real educational opportunity for all students.
Dr. Matthew Ladner is Vice President of Policy and Communications for Children First America.