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Murray Applauds Department of Education’s Move to Address Inequality in Special Education, School to Prison Pipeline, for Students of Color

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, applauded the Department of Education’s proposed rule to address disparities in special education and disciplinary practices, such as suspensions and expulsions. The new proposed rule, which is now open for public comment for 75 days, would provide states with a standard approach in identifying school districts with an over- or under-representation of students of color in special education, known as significant disproportionality in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It would help shine a light on significant disproportionality for sub-groups of students in special education classes, based on disciplinary practices, identification for special education, and placement in particular educational settings. In addition, the proposed rule would clarify that school districts have funding flexibility to help address these inequalities.


“If we’re serious about holding all students to high expectations and dismantling the school to prison pipeline, we need to address the disproportional representation of students of color in special education and who are subjected to disciplinary actions that take them out of the classroom,” Senator Murray said. “Of course students with disabilities should absolutely receive the attention and resources they need to succeed, but inappropriately identifying students for special education can have significant consequences for them and their future. I’m glad the Administration is taking this step toward greater transparency and clarifying school districts have more flexibility to use resources that will help address these inequities and give more students the chance to learn, grow, and thrive in the classroom.”


African-American and American Indian/Alaska Native students are more likely than their peers to be in special education classes, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. In 2013, GAO found that over-representation in special education, “may be a consequence of several factors such as poverty, factors within the school environment, such as cultural bias, or some combination of these elements.” Students in special education classes are more likely to be suspended and expelled from school, and researchers have found that these punishment tactics can feed the “school to prison pipeline,” which takes students out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system.


First enacted in 1975, IDEA is the federal law that supports the unique educational needs of students with disabilities. To address the persistent problem of certain racial and ethnic groups being over- and under-represented in special education, in the last reauthorizations of IDEA in 1997 and 2004, Congress required states to annually report to the U.S. Department of Education significant disproportionality of racial and ethnic groups in special education based on disciplinary practices, identification for special education, and placement in particular educational settings. Congress also required states to review and revise policies, practices, and procedures for identifying school districts with significant disproportionality.


Under IDEA, a school district with significant disproportionality is required to reserve 15 percent of its IDEA Part B funds for comprehensive early intervening services, such as professional development for teachers and other school staff, multi-tier system of supports, or educational and behavioral evaluations, services, and supports. However, GAO’s performance audit found “the discretion that states have in defining significant disproportionality has resulted in a wide range of definitions that provides no assurance that the problem is being appropriately identified across the nation,” and recommended “the Secretary of Education develop a standard approach for defining significant disproportionality to be used by all states.”