In the year 2000, the United States Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) surveyed all of the nation's public schools concerning their special education students. The resulting data-known as the OCR 2000 Elementary and Secondary School Survey-allow for the exploration of the possible existence of racial bias in the assignment of special education labeling. Specifically, the OCR data contain information not only about the race of disabled students, but also about the type of disability labels they carry at the individual school level.
The OCR's data for Arizona public schools confirms the pattern established in previous research conducted with more limited data: minority students attending predominantly white public schools in Arizona are significantly more likely to be placed in special education programs than their peers. Overall, when comparing the combined rates of children with Emotionally Disturbed, Mentally Retarded, and Specific Learning Disability labels, both American Indian and Hispanic males are labeled at a rate 64 percent higher in schools that are 75 percent or more white than in schools that are 25 percent or less white. The same figure for white male students shows an almost 50 percent decline in disability rates. 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.
Arizonans should vigorously pursue remedies for the over-enrollment of students in special education. With the possible causes of misidentification-including perverse financial incentives, the avoidance of standardized testing, the misuse of special education as remedial education, and segregationist impulses-it is clear that the problem is a deep-seated feature of public education in Arizona that will require profound reform. The study suggests three possible remedies: changing the state's special education funding formula, instituting universal screening for the identification process, and creating a parental choice program for children with disabilities. These options do not represent mutually exclusive courses and, in fact, should be implemented simultaneously.