Minorities In Arizona Schools More Likely To Be Labeled Special Ed

Published June 1, 2004

Children enrolled in Arizona public schools are more likely to find themselves placed in a special education program if they are members of a racial group that constitutes a minority in their school, according to a new study from the Goldwater Institute.

Calling the misidentification of special education students “a deep-seated feature of public education in Arizona,” the study suggests a three-pronged reform strategy: universal screening, parental choice, and a revised special education funding formula.

Findings Confirm Earlier Research

Using school-level data for Arizona from a 2000 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the study confirms a pattern established in earlier research of over-enrollment of minority students in special education programs. This was found to be the case both for the individual and the combined rates of children with Emotionally Disturbed, Mentally Retarded, and Specific Learning Disability labels.

For example, when comparing the combined rates of all three disabilities, white males in schools enrolling 75 percent or more white students are placed in special education at only half the rate (12.0 percent versus 23.6 percent) as white males in schools enrolling 25 percent or fewer white students. Because of the relationship between housing segregation and wealth, schools with 25 percent or fewer white students are considered to serve relatively lower-income families, and schools with 75 percent or more white students are considered to serve relatively higher-income families.

Whites Less Likely To Be Placed In Special Ed

While a higher special education placement rate does occur when whites are in the minority in school, that result is not unexpected, since poverty and the attendants of poverty–such as poor prenatal care and poor nutrition–are regarded as the primary causes of many disabilities.

“As discussed in previous research, one would expect some decline in white disability rates in more predominantly white schools and/or districts due to the role of poverty in disability labels,” explained the study’s author, Matthew Ladner, director of the Goldwater Institute Center for Economic Prosperity.

Minorities More Likely To Be Placed In Special Ed

A similar decline would be expected for minority students attending schools where they are in the majority … but in fact an increase is observed.

When comparing the combined rates of the three disabilities defined above, American Indian males in schools that have 75 percent or more white students are labeled at a rate 78 percent higher (43.1 percent versus 24.2 percent) than American Indian males in schools with 25 percent or fewer white students. For Hispanics, the comparable rates are 64 percent higher (21.2 percent versus 12.9 percent). For African-American males, the comparable rates are 21 percent higher (36.2 percent versus 30.0 percent).

“These findings turn conventional wisdom about the contributing causes of learning disabilities on its head,” writes Ladner. “These results come about despite the fact that minority students attending predominantly white schools are less likely on average to grow up in poverty than minority students attending predominantly minority schools.”


Why would minority special education rates be substantially higher in predominantly white districts, where average family incomes for minority students are likely to be higher than in inner-city school districts?

The Goldwater Institute study, titled “Race to the Bottom: Minority Children and Special Education in Arizona Public Schools,” identifies three broad possible causes: perverse financial incentives, the desire to manipulate accountability test scores, and racism.

Research studies have indicated that financial incentives play a pernicious role in special education rates. For example, Manhattan Institute scholars Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster found state officials referred to the special education funding system used in most states–including Arizona–as a “bounty system” where school districts were compensated for each additional student classified as disabled. (See “‘Bounty’ Funding Pushes More Kids into Special Ed,” School Reform News, February 2003.)

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools and districts are rated not only by their overall scores, but also by the scores of student subsets, such as African-American, Hispanic, or economically disadvantaged students. However, if low-performing minority children are labelled as disabled, they are exempted from normal testing. Evidence of this practice is apparent in Arizona, according to Ladner.

While racism is impossible to definitively evaluate, findings from previous research indicate the possibility that special education programs may be used to segregate minority children.

In addition, recent medical evidence shows public schools often mistakenly label children as having a specific learning disability when in fact their condition results from a teaching deficit in early reading instruction. Two out of three children labeled with a specific learning disability could have avoided special education placement if they had received intensive early remedial reading intervention, according to estimates from research by Reid Lyon of the National Institutes for Health.


The study recommends a three-fold strategy to address the over-representation of minority students in special education in Arizona.

The first of these recommendations is to change Arizona’s special education funding formula to remove any incentives for labeling children as learning disabled rather than in need of remedial education.

Since traditional teacher referrals to special education are unreliable, the second recommendation is to use a better identification technique known as universal screening. This alternative screening procedure shows significant promise in reducing misidentification by testing all students at an early age and then providing remedial sessions to all students who are below grade level.

The third recommendation is to institute a program like Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program, which allows disabled children in the state to take all the funds designated for their education to a public or private school of their choice. This would allow Arizona’s disabled children to enjoy the benefits of an “individualized education plan” with the education provider selected specifically for them.

In addition, a McKay-type scholarship program would provide public school administrators with a powerful incentive to address any inaccuracies in the disability assessment process and any instructional inadequacies in the regular education process that produce so-called “learning disabilities.”

“Public school officials commonly complain about not having enough money to educate special needs children,” notes Ladner, “so it seems unlikely they could complain about parents taking their children and their (inadequate) funding elsewhere.”

Ladner conducted an earlier study for the Commonwealth Foundation, published in February under the title, “Racial Bias in Pennsylvania Special Education.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The May 10, 2004 Goldwater Institute Policy Report No. 193 by Matthew Ladner, “Race to the Bottom: Minority Children and Special Education in Arizona Public Schools,” is available online at http://www.goldwaterinstitute.org/pdf/materials/442.pdf.

The February 2004 Commonwealth Foundation Policy Brief by Matthew Ladner, “Racial Bias in Pennsylvania Special Education,” is available online at http://www.commonwealthfoundation.org/education/nr20040211.shtml.

The December 2002 Manhattan Institute report by Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster, “Effects of Funding Incentives on Special Education Enrollment,” Civic Report No. 32, is available from the Institute’s Web site at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/cr_32.pdf.