Recent work published in the Journal of Labor Economics examines how school segregation may be related to racial gaps in special education identification. The authors constructed a sample of approximately 869,000 students, linking birth records to educational records for children born in Florida between 1992 and 2002. Within their data set, the authors have a variety of health, social, and economic information regarding both children and their mothers.
The authors seek to tease apart the extent to which differences in special education identification between racial groups are driven by legitimate health and achievement-based judgements versus potential racial bias. Put simply, their model breaks down differences in special education identification into a sum of the explained and unexplained components. The explained component reflects differences in health, economic status, and parental education, all of which may drive special education identification in legitimate ways. The unexplained component reflects what cannot be explained by differences in other data points, and thus can be interpreted as the extent to which special education identification differs according to race. The highly detailed health and background data utilized in the model allow the authors to make comparisons between students who look nearly identical apart from their race, setting up a framework to consider racial inequities in their findings.
Across the board, the authors find that Black students are significantly less likely to be identified for special education than White students with similar health and family background data. Further, Black students are overrepresented in special education when attending majority White schools, but underrepresented in special education when attending majority Black and Hispanic schools. A Black fourth grader is 9 percentage points less likely to be identified for special education in a majority minority school than in a majority White school. A similar pattern exists for Hispanic students, though less pronounced; White students exhibit the opposite pattern.
The authors conduct a series of checks to determine what might explain these trends. Economic differences between majority minority and majority White schools likely play an important role in a school’s capacity to provide special education services, and indeed, the authors find evidence that economic conditions can explain representation trends for Hispanic and White students. However, economic conditions do not explain trends in special education identification for Black students, suggesting that race remains a part of the story.
The findings presented are compelling evidence that school composition plays an important role in students’ educational experience. Special education services are not uniformly good or bad. There is evidence both that high quality services are beneficial to those who need them, and that special education can remove students from learning opportunities in a stigmatizing way. As such, an immediate answer to racial disproportionality in special education may not be to achieve the “optimal” special education identification rate, but rather to ensure that special education services are high quality and available to all who may benefit.
Further, given the health disparities between Black and White children documented in this paper, the authors suggest incorporating health differences into IDEA’s disproportionality regulations. This may encourage schools and districts to ensure that special education services are made available to students more likely to live with a disability.
Finally, these results also indicate that school segregation is not a neutral phenomenon. There are real consequences to allowing segregated schools to persist, and Black children with disabilities are shouldering a meaningful share.
SOURCE: Todd E. Elder, David N. Figlio, Scott A. Imberman, and Claudia L. Persico, “School segregation and racial gaps in special education identification,” Journal of Labor Economics, 39(S1) (2021).