Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to delay an Obama-era rule designed to protect children of color from being disproportionately sent to special-education classrooms or from being unfairly disciplined.
The Education Department on Thursday posted a notice online signaling that it wants to postpone the regulation, called the significant disproportionality rule, for two years, meaning it would take effect in 2020 instead of 2018. But in the interim, DeVos could decide to scrap the rule altogether.
"Through the regulatory review process, we've heard from states, school districts, superintendents and other stakeholders on a wide range of issues, including the significant disproportionality rule," said Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the department. "Because of the concerns raised, the department is looking closely at this rule and has determined that, while this review takes place, it is prudent to delay implementation for two years."
The rule, drawn up at the end of the Obama administration, stems from a 2004 change to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which governs special education in schools across the nation. Congress, responding to concerns that students of color were overrepresented in special education, began requiring school districts to collect data on the demographics and treatment of special-education students.
Congress wanted states to track whether black special-education students were more likely to be removed from mainstream classrooms, for example, or whether Hispanic special-education students faced harsher discipline.
If states identified problematic disparities, they could set aside federal special-education funds to help schools improve.
But advocates said the law did not go far enough because it allowed states to decide when a problem exists. A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office found that states identified just 2 percent of districts nationwide as having problems with disparities. Advocates suspect the problem is far more widespread.
So in January, the Obama administration put in place the significant disproportionality rule, which more clearly defines how states should identify problematic school systems.
"This rule is important because we know and we have clear data that indicates that African American kids are not treated the same as other children in special education," said Diane Smith Howard, a senior staff attorney with the National Disability Rights Network, an advocacy group for people with disabilities.
But the American Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents across the country, applauded the move to delay the rule, saying it could be costly to implement.
"AASA supports the decision to roll back Obama-era regulations . . . that would impose significant costs and administrative burdens on half of the school districts throughout the country," Executive Director Daniel A. Domenech said. "This heavy-handed and aggressive regulation by the Obama administration should be pulled back given the enormous financial consequences for districts."