Black Over-representation in Special Education Not Confined to Segregation States

By Joel McNally

Many suspect the over-representation of African Americans in special education really began to grow after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered public schools to be desegregated in 1954.

Five of the seven states today with the highest over-representation of African Americans labeled mentally retarded are Southern states where the races were once separated by law — Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida.

But Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, said racial inequities have become so pervasive that no region can afford to be smug.

“One of the things our study suggests is that nobody should be assuming that racial inequity in special education is somebody else’s problem until they look at their own data,” Orfield said. “We really see it everywhere we look. It’s happening lots of places that have a progressive image.”

Wisconsin is a good example of a Northern state with a good reputation for the quality of its education overall, that also turns out to be among the leaders nationally in racial disparities in special education.

Orfield and Daniel Losen’s book Racial Inequity in Special Education ranks Wisconsin above the national average in racial disparities in all three of the so-called “soft” disability categories — mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, and specific learning disabilities — where subjective opinion rather than medical diagnosis qualifies students for special education.

Their book cites research computing “odds ratios” that compare the odds of African-American and white children being placed in various disability categories. Disparities that already are enormous nationwide are even worse in Wisconsin.

Nationally, Blacks are nearly three times more likely (2.88) to be identified as mentally retarded than white students and nearly twice as likely (1.92) to be labeled as emotionally disturbed. In Wisconsin, Blacks are more than three times as likely (3.16) to be labeled mentally retarded and almost twice as likely (1.99) to be categorized as emotionally disturbed.

The third “soft” category, specific learning disabilities, had the lowest racial disparity nationally. Blacks were about 30 percent more likely (1.32) than whites to be so categorized. Again, the racial disparity in Wisconsin was greater. Blacks there were 40 percent more likely (1.41) than whites to be classified with specific learning disabilities.

Statewide figures can obscure what is really going on within individual school districts. That is why research from an unlikely source, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, funded by the right-wing Bradley Foundation, provides some valuable information by comparing differences between school districts in Wisconsin.

“The Growth of Special Education in Wisconsin” appears to have been published by the conservative institute to support those lobbying to cut funding to special education. But it contains revealing data from the 2000-01 school year about racial disparities within individual school districts.

For instance, in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), the only majority African-American school district in the state, Blacks were only slightly more likely (1.12) than whites to be placed in special education.

In five other school districts in the state, Black students were more than twice as likely as white students to be placed into special education. The districts with the highest ratios of placing Blacks in special education compared to whites were Elmbrook (2.47), Oshkosh (2.17), Madison (2.10), Appleton (2.08), and Wisconsin Rapids (2.07).

In MPS, 18.2 percent of all Black students were placed into special education. In districts with far fewer Blacks, the percentage placed into special education was often staggering.

Madison placed nearly a third of its black students, 31.6 percent, in special education. Other districts with extremely large percentages of Black students in special education were Oshkosh, 30.5 percent; Wisconsin Rapids, 29.4 percent; Appleton, 28.9 percent; Elmbrook, 26 percent; Fond du Lac, 25.4 percent; and Racine, 25.3 percent.

— J. M.