Federal Law and Regulations

U.S. Department of Education Takes Action to Deliver Equity for Students with Disabilities

by Ernie Melcher

The U.S. Department of Education took a critical step toward addressing widespread disparities in the treatment of students of color with disabilities, proposing a new rule to improve equity in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The nation’s special education law, IDEA, aims to ensure fairness in the identification, placement, and discipline of students with disabilities. Yet disparities persist, and students of color remain more likely to be identified as having a disability and face harsher discipline than their white classmates.
In order to address those inequities, IDEA requires states to identify districts with “significant disproportionality” in special education—that is, when districts identify, place outside the regular classroom, or discipline children from any racial or ethnic group at markedly higher rates than their peers. According to a new analysis by the Department of data states submitted under IDEA, hundreds of districts around the country with large racial and ethnic disparities go unidentified. For example, 876 school districts gave African American students with disabilities short-term, out-of-school suspensions at least twice as often as all other students with disabilities for three years in a row. But, in 2013, states identified fewer than 500 districts in total with “significant disproportionality.”
The proposed Equity in IDEA rule would, for the first time, require states to implement a standard approach to compare racial and ethnic groups, with reasonable thresholds for determining when disparities have become significant. That determination is critical to ensuring students get the supports they need and deserve. Once identified as having a significant disproportionality, the district must set aside 15 percent of its IDEA, Part B funds to provide comprehensive coordinated early intervening services. Further, the policies, practices, and procedures of the district must be reviewed, and, if necessary, revised to ensure compliance with IDEA.

The proposed rule would also provide identified districts with new flexibility to support the needs of students. The Department has proposed to broaden the allowable uses of the 15 percent set aside, currently used to fund early intervening services, to include services to students with and without disabilities, from ages 3 through grade 12. Up until now, identified districts could only use these funds to support students without disabilities, and only in grades K through 12, severely limiting the use of interventions that might address early needs and reduce disparities in the placement and discipline of students with disabilities.

The full press release from the U.S. Department of education is available at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-takes-action-deliver-equity-students-disabilities

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