Study Documents Widespread Racial Bias in Special Education

Posted on March 31, 2003 | Type: Press Release
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Study Calls for Vouchers for Learning Disabled Students

PHOENIX-In a study released today by the Goldwater Institute, Children First America vice president Matthew Ladner finds evidence of pervasive racial bias by public school districts in the labeling of children as "learning disabled." By mislabeling children as disabled, Ladner writes, "The erring districts may seriously damage children's self-images and confidence in their own capabilities-perhaps permanently."

In Arizona, predominantly White districts label substantially higher percentages of minority students as disabled when compared to predominantly minority districts:

  • Disability rates for Hispanic students are 48 percent higher
  • Disability rates for African-American students are 29 percent higher
  • Predominantly White districts label 34 percent fewer White students as disabled

A growing body of nationwide evidence corroborates Ladner's findings. While the number of clinically disabled students in the U.S. has remained nearly constant since 1976, the number of students classified as "learning disabled" has tripled. Research also shows an estimated 10 percent of Arizona's disability cases, more than 8,000 students, may have been mislabeled by school districts attempting to qualify for increased funding under a "bounty-style" special education funding formula-a formula repudiated by Congress in 1997 and by 16 states. Ladner argues that as much as 70 percent of "learning disabled" students actually suffer from "teaching deficiency," a condition that can be prevented through rigorous early reading instruction.

In Arizona, 1,170 disabled students currently attend private schools at public expense to get the education they need. But private school placement is only accessible if a district agrees to it, or parents can afford to hire an attorney and successfully sue a district to allow the private school option. Ladner argues that this is not enough: "The choices of parents, not the caprice of districts, should determine the supply of school spaces for disabled children." Ladner concludes that Arizona should adopt a statewide voucher system for special education modeled after Florida's McKay Scholarship Program. The vouchers would:

  • Provide immediate help to more than 87,000 disabled students by giving their parents the opportunity to choose the best possible school for their children;
  • Be at least revenue neutral, like the McKay Scholarship Program; and,
  • Save the state an estimated $50 million each year by reducing the incidence of mislabeling.

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