I recently came across an article in the New York Times that addressed a term that I had never heard before: significant disproportionality. It is the overrepresentation of minorities in special education, the increased likelihood of a minority child to be identified as having a disability, and the increased severity with which minority children are disciplined in schools. These facts have been supported by several studies. The Significant Disproportionality rule was developed at the end of the Obama administration in order to address the inequalities stated above. It requires that each state collect and examine data to determine whether any of these disparities are occurring in their schools. If any of these issues are identified, the state is then required to publicly report the findings and allocate 15% of their Individuals with Disabilities in Education (IDEA) funds to policies and procedures that will rectify the issues. The Department of Education decided to delay the implementation of the Significant Disproportionality Rule this past December. Although disproportionality continues to affect our children, they will now have to wait at least two years for anything to be done.

There are several reasons why the Department of Education may have chosen to delay implementation of the rule. First, there have been newer contrary studies showing that African Americans are, in fact, less likely to receive special education services when compared to white students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and achievement levels. Second, it would require reallocation of funds currently used for special education if a problem were identified, which  could put great strain on school districts that are already struggling financially and don’t have the resources to provide adequate special education. Lastly, many view this rule as “heavy handed and aggressive”, including the School Superintendents Association who support the delay.

Whether addressed by this specific rule or in some other manner, significant disproportionality is an issue that cannot be ignored. The problem with underrepresentation is clear. The issue with overrepresentation may not be as obvious. If a significantly disproportionate number of African American kids are labeled with disabilities and are unnecessarily funneled into special education, then the system itself becomes overwhelmed. Specifically, systems in school districts where there are a large number of African American students who are at risk. I have often struggled with getting services for kids who really need them in inner city schools due to the lack of resources for special education. Some students may find school more difficult and struggle more than others academically but not have a disability. Many students, for example, find specific subjects harder than other and need help from adults to help them understand the content. If these children could be supported with tutors or after school programs outside of special education, it would be easier to get services for those who really need it.

While those with the power to address this issue ponder how and when to do so, these children are missing out on the education that is promised to them. What are the consequences of this? I would argue that the higher African American dropout rate, lower African American graduation rate and, even possibly, the school to prison pipeline (which preferentially sends young black people to prison) may be related to these unequal school practices. While the decision to delay the implementation of the Significant Disproportionality Rule may seem financially and politically sound, this is an issue that must be addressed. We must quickly ensure that every child is receiving an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment because for many of our children, it may be now or never.

To read more about the Significant Disproportionality Rule and disparities in special education please visit the link below:



The views above are my own and not necessarily those of Illinois LEND.