Study: Minority Students More Likely to be Called 'Learning Disabled'

Posted on March 31, 2003 | Type: In the News
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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Minority students are more likely to be labeled learning disabled in Arizona school districts with predominantly white populations than in racially diverse districts, a new study says.

Disability rates for Hispanic students are 48 percent higher in white-dominated districts compared to minority-dominated districts, and 29 percent higher for black students, said Matthew Ladner, a researcher who conducted the study for the Goldwater Institute, a public policy think tank.

Ladner said his results appeared to hold even after taking into account school spending levels and student socioeconomic status. The Tucson-area districts examined, however, seem to buck the statewide trend.

The Catalina Foothills Unified School District, with an almost 90 percent white student population, put roughly the same percentage of Hispanics into special education as white students. About 12 percent of the district's Hispanic students participate in special education, and about 11 percent of whites do. "What the study's really about is the districts who are more than 75 percent white," Ladner said. "Flagstaff is a good example."

The Flagstaff Unified School District, which is 76 percent white, placed 13.5 percent of its white students, 15 percent of its Hispanics and 23.8 percent of its black students in special education.

Black students account for less than 3 percent of Flagstaff's student population.

"This same pattern has popped up in other states," Ladner said.

The study's numbers don't surprise Ray Clarke, president of the Tucson Urban League.

"That's very much a confirmation of the frustration many of those parents have been feeling for an awful long time," he said. Ladner blames racial prejudice and "perverse financial incentives" to mislabel minority students.

The federal government, along with 16 states, changed its funding method in 1997 by allocation lump sums based on school demographics.

But Arizona still offers more money to districts that have more special-education students.

That comes to between $10 and $14 per special-education student* in addition to the average $5,000 per student the state gives school districts. But once the district covers the cost of one special-education teacher's salary and other program costs, the money doesn't go very far, said Lorrane McPherson, head of the Tucson Unified School District's special education program.

*Webmaster's note: That statistic did not come from Dr. Ladner. Ladner's estimates are considerably higher; in some cases, in excess of $10,000 per student.

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