Low-income students are disproportionately assigned to special education, according to a new report from the Century Foundation by researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, and SRI International.
Experts and educators have long documented how students of color are disproportionately sent to special education to their detriment, isolated in classrooms with teachers who have less expertise in important subject-matter material like math, English, and science. Last summer, the Trump administration delayed regulations the Obama administration had proposed to curb discriminatory special education assignments, stating that “racial disparities in the identification, placement, or discipline of children with disabilities are not necessarily evidence of, or primarily caused by, discrimination.” Rather than reflecting racial discrimination, they said, an overrepresentation of students of color in special education can be chalked up to higher need for those services, or because special education placement is correlated with poverty. They did not suggest that this correlation in itself could be due to discrimination.
The Century Foundation report sought to understand the experiences of low-income students in special education. Little research on the intersection of income and special education exists, in part because states are not required to report special education data by students’ income status, the report says. The new findings confirm that low-income students are overrepresented in special education and warn that the potential for systemic discrimination should not be thrown out. The report was authored by Laura Schifter, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Todd Grindal, a researcher at SRI International; Thomas Hehir, a professor at HGSE; and Gabriel Schwartz, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health,
“The problem in assuming that the disproportionality among low-income students is appropriate is that you’re ignoring potential school-wide and more systemic factors that be impacting the higher rates of identification among low-income students,” says Schifter.
In their analysis of data from three states, the researchers found that low-income students were more likely to be identified for special education than their more affluent peers — specifically in subjective categories, like an emotional disability, compared to more objective categories, like hearing impairment.
Low-income students diagnosed with a disability were also more likely to be placed in a substantially separated classroom than their more affluent peers. This is a problem because expectations are often lower in such classrooms, and teachers are less likely to be content specialists — experts in key subjects like math and English — than in mainstream classrooms.