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 A Special-Ed Warning for New York

December 2, 1998 

The Federal Government has warned that New York City could lose Federal aid if it continues to shunt disproportionate numbers of black and Latino children into special education. The city is a legitimate target. But the segregation that has raised red flags in Washington is common throughout the state -- and is due in part to a funding formula that penalizes districts that reduce special-education enrollment while rewarding those who keep enrollment as high as possible and have the highest per-pupil special-ed expenditures. Unless New York State junks this formula, it could find itself stripped of special-education aid and in violation of Federal civil rights laws. 

 This is the second time in two years that the Federal Education Departmentís civil rights division has questioned why New York City funnels inordinately large numbers of black and Latino students into special-education classes, which often become holding pens for children who learn nothing and rarely graduate. 

 The Board of Education agreed last year to take specific steps to alleviate the problem. But in last monthís follow-up, Federal officials noted that many schools were still warehousing blacks and Latinos as well as children whose first language is not English. 

A two-year investigation by the United States Department of Educationís office of civil rights found that African-American children in schools where the principals, faculty and student body are mainly white are most likely to end up in special-education classes. The highest incidence of referrals is found in schools with low poverty rates, high reading and math scores and large numbers of experienced, permanently certified teachers. 

 Theoretically, these schools would be best equipped to deal with students who might need extra help. But these children are often dumped into special ed even when diagnostic tests reveal no need for it. 

Ethnic stereotypes play a role in disproportionate referrals. But so does the desire to get under-prepared children out of mainstream classes so they will not be tested, bringing down school-wide scores. In addition, children are sometimes sent to special ed because mainstream teachers lack the time or skill to help them with basic reading problems, the prime cause of special-education referrals. 

This process is driven by a "spend-to-get" state funding formula that awards special-education aid based on how much schools spend for this purpose -- and makes it fiscal suicide for them to shrink their programs. 

The New York State Education Commissioner, Richard Mills, addressed the funding question two years ago when he proposed increasing support for mainstream classrooms while doing away with the incentives that lead schools to isolate students in special-education classes. 

But Gov. George Pataki failed to back this proposal, as did legislators from suburban Long Island, who use special-education aid as a way to subsidize public education without resorting to higher taxes. 

The best response is to enact Mr. Millsís proposal, bolstering mainstream education and removing the financial incentives for special ed. School districts can do it now while there is time to think it through, or rush later when the Federal Government presses their backs to the wall. 

From New York Times, Dec. 2, 1998

To read new article that sheds a different light on issues relating to minority over-representation in special ed, click "View from the Top: How Principals View Learning Problems."

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