A Question of Social Justice: Disproportionality in Special Education

John J. Russell, EdD

In 1968, Lloyd Dunn published his often-cited article, “Special Education for the Mildly Retarded—Is Much of it Justifiable?” In it, he argued that minority and low-income students were being classified as mildly mentally retarded (author’s note: “mildly mentally retarded” was a catchall phrase that included a number of disabilities; this term, which is considered offensive, is no longer acceptable) more than was justified, stating, “In my view, much of our past and present practices are morally and educationally wrong. We have been living at the mercy of general educators who have referred their problem children to us. And we have been generally ill prepared and ineffective in educating these children. Let us stop being pressured into continuing and expanding a special education program that we know now to be undesirable for many of the children we are dedicated to serve.”  

Over 50 years have passed since Dunn’s impassioned plea for equity and quality in special education, and yet arguments about disproportionate representation of low-income students and students of color in special education continue. There have been many advances in special education since 1968, and still the evils that Dunn railed against persist to this day. Disproportionality remains a cause of disagreement and at times bitter debate among researchers, educators, advocates, and policymakers.  

In 1975, Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) guaranteeing a free, appropriate public education to each child with a disability. In 1997, PL 94-142 was amended to become the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The stated purposes of the law were to improve how children with disabilities were identified and educated, evaluate the success of these efforts, and provide due process protections for children and families. According to the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, “This law had a dramatic, positive impact on millions of children with disabilities in every state and each local community across the country.”  

Since the passage of PL 94-142 45 years ago, significant progress has been made toward meeting its goals for developing and implementing effective programs and services for early intervention, special education, and related services. Before IDEA, many children were disastrously denied an education at all. For example, in 1970, schools educated only one in five children with disabilities, and numerous states had laws excluding certain students, including children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or cognitively challenged (US Department of Education, 2015). Many studies, however, cast doubt on whether the rights and purported benefits of IDEA have been applied equally for all children and, most notably, children of color. Concern persists that students are being segregated through prejudiced or otherwise inappropriate educational decisions (Blanchett, Mumford, & Beachum, 2005; Proctor, Graves, & Esch, 2012). A large number of studies report that the students who are most likely to be placed in special education are Black, male, and poverty-stricken (Harry, Klinger, & Moore, 2000; Holzman, 2006; Noguera, 2005). More recently, Mohammad (2016) maintains that Black male students are disproportionately placed in the special educational systems throughout inner-city public schools in the United States.  

Many studies cast doubt on whether the rights and purported benefits of IDEA have been applied equally for all children and, most notably, children of color. 

In a study sponsored by The Research Alliance for New York City Schools, Fancseli (2019) found that 6% of NYC students with IEPs were Asian, 31% were Black, 48% were Latino, and 13% were White, while the actual racial/ethnic composition of the City’s public schools was 16% Asian, 27% Black, 41% Latino, and 15% White. This pattern of racial disparities is similar to that seen nationally, where students of color—particularly Native American, Black, and Latino students—are enrolled in special education and classified with specific types of disabilities at higher rates than other students (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, 2018). In addition to being overidentified, students of color are at higher risk for damaging outcomes, especially Black students, who are more likely than White students to be placed in restrictive educational settings with limited general education involvement, show fewer academic gains, and remain in special education longer (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). 

Despite these findings, others argue that identification of students for eligibility for special education services is more complicated than just overrepresentation. Sullivan and Proctor (2016) define disproportionality in special education as differences in treatment or outcomes that are determined by race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, and includes both underrepresentation and overrepresentation in special education. For example, Morgan et al. (2015) claim that students of color were actually underrepresented across five of the disability conditions they studied—learning disabilities, speech/language impairments, intellectual disabilities, other health impairments, or emotional disturbances—and were less likely to receive potentially beneficial special education services. Their report drew immediate, intense, critical responses from many researchers in the field of special education who argue that students of color and poor students have a well-documented history of being overrepresented in special education (Cohen, Burns, Riley-Tilman, & Hosp, 2015; Blanchett & Shealey,2016; Skiba et al., 2016).   

The research studies and governmental reports cited previously represent a mere fraction of analyses on disproportionality. Despite over five decades of research, the extent and type of disproportionality (overrepresentation and underrepresentation) as well as the mechanisms causing it are still not agreed upon. A number of explanations for disproportionality have been offered, with some arguing that minority populations are particularly susceptible to certain disabilities because of economic, cultural, or environmental disadvantage (Sullivan & Proctor, 2016);  others suggest racial disparities are the result of broader social inequities and race relations (Sullivan & Artiles, 2011). The disproportionate inclusion rates of low-income students and students of color in special education programs have also often been attributed to systemic bias in the identification of disabilities in schoolchildren, institutionalized racism, and purposeful segregation. The debate rages on about whether students of color are overrepresented in special education because they are inappropriately identified or because they are actually more likely to have disabilities (due to risk factors such as low-income status). Some argue that students of color are in fact under-diagnosed and missing out on necessary services. Research provides evidence in support of both sides of the argument (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Elder, et. al., 2019; Fish, 2019; Morgan et. el., 2015; Skiba, et. al., 2016).   

The debate rages on about whether students of color are overrepresented in special education because they are inappropriately identified or because they are actually more likely to have disabilities (due to risk factors such as low-income status). 

Disproportionality is complex and enduring, and this article merely skims the surface of a deep-seated problem. No matter what the underlining causes may be, special education disproportionality is an issue of social justice because of its unequal effects on the education of students of color, particularly Black students (Sullivan & Proctor, 2016). Therefore, it is imperative that special education programs be continuously and scrupulously examined for underrepresentation and overrepresentation. The process and the criteria used to identify a student as disabled must be informed by enhanced cultural competency of educators. The effectiveness of special education programs and services must be evaluated on the results that they produce and not the good intentions of the providers. These steps and others will allow educators to finally respond to Dunn’s indictment that “In my view, much of our past and present practices are morally and educationally wrong.” 

It is, therefore, imperative that special education programs be continuously and scrupulously examined for underrepresentation and overrepresentation.