The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), designed to prevent the neglect and segregation of special education students, has resulted in the neglect and segregation of even larger student populations of minorities nationwide, including Arizona. The culprit: Perverse financial incentives to classify children as "learning disabled" when in fact they are "learning deficient," meaning they require remedial reading instruction, not special education programs.
Recent national studies show that nearly 2 million children have preventable learning "disabilities," and the number of students classified as learning disabled could be reduced by as much as 70 percent with rigorous early reading instruction. The sheer number of students mislabeled is staggering. Even worse, in predominantly White school districts minority students are classified as learning disabled at significantly higher rates.
This study focuses on race and special education in Arizona's public school districts, based on data from the Arizona Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education. Even after controlling for school spending, student poverty, community poverty, and other factors, research uncovered a pattern of predominantly White public school districts placing minority students into special education at significantly higher rates. As a result, Arizona taxpayers spend nearly $50 million each year on unnecessary special education programs.
Arizonans must not wait for Washington to resolve the problem. With nearly 10 percent of Arizona's disability labels attributable to perverse financial incentives under the special education "bounty funding formula," we must forgo the current funding system, repudiated by Congress during the 1997 IDEA reauthorization and by 16 states. In addition, Arizonans should implement a statewide voucher program enabling all disabled students to attend a public or private school of their parents' choice. According to the Arizona Department of Education, 1,170 disabled students are already attending private schools at public expense. The success of Florida's revenue-neutral special education voucher program, the McKay Scholarship Program, demonstrates that when perverse financial incentives are replaced with school choice, the quality of education improves, benefiting all students.