Overrepresentation of Minority Students in Special Education

Article excerpt

Introduction and Statement of the Problem

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the overrepresentation of minority students in special education programs. The issue is of critical importance and is very complex. If education for children with disabilities were easily understood, special education would be locally funded, because special education programs are so very valuable to the community. Unfortunately this is not the case. Because of federal involvement and the provision of a free, appropriate, public education, persons with cerebral palsy, persons who are deaf or blind, persons with autism, and other individuals with significant disabilities are integral, highly productive members of our national community. These folks did not live in institutions. They lived with their parents and rode the same bus to school that all their friends rode. They were part of school plays and attended birthday parties and baseball games. They received diplomas at graduation. They went to college, and to graduate school, and to supported, competitive employment. Some of them have been our finest public servants, directing important federal agencies, enacting and implementing legislation such as IDEA and the ADA (Lipsky, D.K. & Gartner, A., 1997).

The "picture" of special education programs is not a positive one for all participants. The outcomes which are most positive are those for individuals with significant disabilities--those students who were previously unable to attend school or hold jobs. The most "negative" comments relate to students with mild disabilities such as mild mental retardation, learning disabilities, and behavior disorders (Affleck, J.Q., Edgar, E., Levine, P., & Korteromg, L., 1999; Maynard, J., Tyler, J.L., Arnold, M., 1999; Artiles, A.J., Trent, S.C., Kuan, L.A., 1994). These high incidence disabilities have "emerged" with the passage of the special education laws, and students who are given these labels often have unsatisfactory outcomes--perhaps a label which they, and their parents feel they do not "deserve" ("I may be dumb, but I'm NOT retarded"). Parents and grandparents who were educated in segregated schools are not supportive of any label which implies that their children are deviant from the norm. Parents who did not have good experiences in the public schools are not willing participants in public education processes, and are suspicious of school based activities in which they do not participate. (Turnbull, R. & Turnbull, A., 1997) Wonderful athletes have graduated from high school without learning to read, because they were "placed" in special education, had poor instruction and suffered from low expectations. These students provide a very different side of the special education picture. They have not had positive outcomes, and they are overwhelmingly from ethnic groups other than those from Western Europe (Affleck, J.Q., Edgar, E., Levine, P., & Kortering, L., 1999: U.S. Department of Education, 1996; 2000). The notion that any one race is less able to learn than another is anathema to our national conscience. Despite our best efforts, the problem persists and is documented in the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990, and in biannual reports from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.

The issue of the disproportionate representation of minority groups in special education was discussed in the professional literature as early as 1968. Following the passage of P.L. 94-142, in 1975, both the profession and the Court System attempted to address the issue of the overrepresentation of minority groups in special education. Reports from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, and Office of Special Education Programs have continued to document the problem. As recently as October of 2001, the Secretary of Education, Dr. Robert Paige, expressed his concern about the issue of disproportional representation of minority groups in Special Education programs in testimony to Congress. …