Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attends the National Teacher of the Year award at the White House on May 2. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

In the last days of the Obama administration, the Education Department changed Individuals With Disabilities Education Act regulations to try to address disciplinary disparities between white students and students of color with disabilities. As John B. King Jr., then education secretary, said in December 2016:

“Children with disabilities are often disproportionately and unfairly suspended and expelled from school and educated in classrooms separate from their peers. Children of color with disabilities are overrepresented within the special education population, and the contrast in how frequently they are disciplined is even starker.”

The federal IDEA law requires states to identify districts with “significant disproportionality” in special education — when districts identify, place in more restrictive settings, or discipline children from any racial or ethnic group at markedly higher rates than their peers. The “Equity in IDEA” rules set by the Obama administration set a common standard for making those identifications (among other things).

Now, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is moving to delay the implementation of the rules, which were supposed to start in the 2018-19 school year — and she may want to get rid of them altogether. The department said in a notice in the Federal Register on Feb. 27 that it wanted to ensure that implementation was effective.

I published a post in March by Catherine Kramarczuk Voulgarides, an assistant professor of special education at Touro College in New York City, that discussed why it would be a mistake for DeVos to delay the rules, noting that the Trump administration’s notice of the proposed delay “minimized the civil-rights issue that is central to disproportionality in special education.”

And it is has been documented that there are minority students who are inappropriately placed in special education.

But this new post takes a different look at the issue, arguing that some minority students who need special education are not identified for it — and that white students get more support than blacks. It was written by two academics, Paul L. Moran and George Farkas, who raised eyebrows in the field in 2016 when they published a meta-analysis of 22 studies, “Are Black Children Disproportionately Overrepresented in Special Education? A Best-Evidence Synthesis,” which argued against the prevailing thinking that black children are overrepresented.

In the piece below, they argue that the discussion about the Equity in IDEA rules is missing something important:

Although well-intentioned, the Equity in IDEA regulations are misdirected. This is because they do not address the true inequity. Instead of monitoring for over-identification based on race or ethnicity, federal legislation and policy should be monitoring for under-identification.

Perhaps federal legislation and policy should be monitoring for both — minority students who are in special ed who shouldn’t be and those who should be but aren’t.

In any case, here’s the post. Morgan is a professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University, where he directs the Center for Educational Disparities Research. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulMorganPhD. George Farkas is a professor of education at the University of California at Irvine.

By Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas

The U.S. Department of Education is considering whether to delay the new “Equity in IDEA” regulations. These regulations expand federal monitoring of whether U.S. schools are over-identifying children as having disabilities based on their race or ethnicity.

The regulations require use of a standard methodology to examine whether “significant disproportionality” is occurring. If so, then schools must reallocate their federal funding so as to reduce the disproportionality and review their disability identification practices, policies and procedures.

Although well-intentioned, the Equity in IDEA regulations are misdirected. This is because they do not address the true inequity. Instead of monitoring for over-identification based on race or ethnicity, federal legislation and policy should be monitoring for under-identification.

Peer-reviewed empirical studies repeatedly find that minority children are less likely to be identified as having disabilities than otherwise similar white or English-speaking children while attending U.S. schools.

The Equity in IDEA regulations use risk ratios and thresholds to examine whether schools are racially discriminatory in how they identify children as having disabilities. For example, schools in Maryland would be classified as having significant disproportionality if minority children are twice as likely to be identified as having disabilities as white children.

Maryland’s standard is similar to those recommended in a 2016 U.S. Department of Education report released with the Equity in IDEA regulations. These standards would result in 20 percent of Maryland’s school districts being classified as over-identifying black children as having disabilities. These districts would then have to work to numerically reduce these risk ratios.

Yet risk ratios are unable to show whether schools are being racially discriminatory in how they identify children as having disabilities. This is because risk ratios do not adjust for variability in individual children’s clinical needs for services. Relying on such flawed indicators will misdirect federal civil rights efforts. Doing so may limit the ability of minority children with disabilities to access beneficial special education services.

Consider the following example. Black children are twice as likely to have asthma as white children in the United States. Does this mean pediatricians are racially discriminatory in how they diagnose asthma? Instead, variability in clinical need as a result of greater exposure to environmental allergens and other poverty-related risk factors (which itself results from historical and ongoing residential segregation) largely explains asthma’s racial disparities.

That is, black children in the United States are more likely to be diagnosed with asthma because they are more likely to be exposed to asthma’s risk factors. Federal policies that use quota-like systems to monitor pediatricians for disproportionality in their asthma diagnoses would result in minority children with this treatable health condition being less likely to receive care.

The right way to monitor for whether U.S. schools are racially discriminatory in their disability identification practices is to examine whether schools are treating similarly situated children differently. For instance, policymakers might investigate whether, among similarly achieving children attending the same schools, those who are black are more or less likely to be identified than those who are white. This “differential treatment” standard is used by both the National Research Council and the Education Department’s office of civil rights to measure racial discrimination.

Using similarly situated contrasts would help address the many problems resulting from Equity in IDEA’s use of risk ratios, which may reflect differences in underlying prevalence rates. As with asthma, there is good reason to think that disability prevalence rates differ between minority and white children in the United States. Minority children are far more likely to be exposed to lead, be born with low birth weight, have higher blood pressure, and experience other gestational and environmental risks for disability as a result of a much greater likelihood of growing up in poverty.

Despite their greater risk factor exposure, there is also good reason to believe that minority children are instead under-identified by U.S. schools as having disabilities. In fact, across 10 peer-reviewed studies analyzing more than 40 nationally representative samples of children attending elementary, middle and high schools in the United States, we find both widespread and long-standing under-identification.

Minority children’s disability under-identification occurs across a range of specific conditions and before school entry. Minority children are less likely than similarly situated white children to be identified as having autism, learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, ADHD, behavioral disabilities, other health impairments, or even low-prevalence disabilities like visual or hearing impairments.

Put another way, we repeatedly find that children who are white and English-speaking are far more likely to be identified as having disabilities and so receiving special education services than similarly situated minority children who display the same clinical needs, come from similarly resourced families and attend the same schools.

For example, among fourth-grade children with reading difficulties, we find that 74 percent of white children are receiving special education services. The contrasting percentages for black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American children? Only 44 percent, 43 percent, 34 percent and 48 percent, respectively. Schools may be biased against identifying minority children as having disabilities.

Minority children’s under-identification has been occurring in the United States since at least 2003. These findings are also consistent with those reported by public health researchers.

Unrecognized disabilities may partially explain racial achievement gaps in the United States as well as the school-to-prison pipeline. U.S. schools are more likely to criminalize the behavioral problems of minority children, including through suspension and expulsion, yet provide treatment for the same behaviors of white children.

Why are minority children so much less likely to be identified as having disabilities than similarly situated white children? Teachers may fail to consider an underlying disability as a reason for repeated academic difficulties. Many minority parents and community members lack access to scientifically accurate information about the signs, symptoms and available treatments for disabilities. Minority parents of children with disabilities report experiencing stigma as well as dismissive providers. Due-process materials used by U.S. schools are often written in dense legalese requiring college-level schooling to understand. And federal legislation and policy, including the new Equity in IDEA regulations, may unintentionally limit access to special education services by minority children with disabilities.

To address minority children’s under-identification, teachers and parents should have better access to evidence-based information about disabilities. The special education system should not rely so heavily on teacher referral. Instead, U.S. schools should be using universal screening methods. Universal screening has been found to help address minority children’s under-identification for both gifted education and pediatric care. Federal legislators and policymakers should be using the best available empirical evidence to ensure that the civil rights of minority children with disabilities are protected.

This empirical evidence consistently indicates that federal legislators and policymakers should be monitoring for under-identification. Such civil rights monitoring could be done using the NAEP test as well as statewide or local data sets that allow for contrasts between similarly situated children, particularly those who are similarly achieving.

This more rigorous evidence of potential racial discrimination in U.S. schools could then be investigated locally by the Education Department’s office of civil rights. These efforts would do far more to ensure equity in the special education system than the current Equity in IDEA regulations.

For anyone interested, here’s a list of the links that are embedded in the piece above. I don’t usually include footnotes, but it seemed useful in this case: