This piece is adapted from comments that Halley Potter and Kimberly Quick submitted to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services based on a request for input from the Department on their proposal to delay implementing the “significant disproportionality” regulations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These regulations, identified as 34 CFR 300.346 and 34 CFR 200.347 in the Code of Federal Regulations, and which are scheduled to go into effect July 1, 2018, establish a standard formula designed to make sure that states are meaningfully identifying racial disparities in special education identification, placement, and disciplinary actions for students with disabilities. The Department has proposed pushing back implementation of the regulations to July 1, 2020, citing concerns about federal overreach.

As education policy researchers focused on student equity, we oppose the delay in implementation of the significant disproportionality regulations, which would push back implementation of the rules from 2018 to 2020.

The Need for the Significant Disproportionality Regulations

The significant disproportionality regulations are designed to address the issue of states’ noncompliance with the significant disproportionality requirement in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). IDEA requires states to identify and address racial or ethnic disparities in the treatment of students with regard to identification for special education services, placement in segregated settings, and disciplinary actions. National data shows that large racial gaps in special education programs currently exist. For example, American Indian and Alaska Native students are 70 percent more likely than peers of other races and ethnicities to be identified as having an intellectual disability, and black students are 40 percent more likely.

Under IDEA, states must collect and analyze data yearly to identify whether a “significant disproportionality” exists in the state or any of its local education agencies (LEAs). Where significant disproportionality does exist, LEAs are required to spend 15 percent of their IDEA funds on early intervention in order to address these disparities. This policy is not designed as a punishment. LEAs do not lose funds but instead are specifically guided to use IDEA funding to improve general education, supporting schools in meeting the needs of diverse learners.

IDEA does not specify a definition for “significant disproportionality,” and thus far states have developed their own definitions. However, this system of states individually defining significant disproportionality has resulted in varying and lax definitions among states. A 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that 21 states did not require any districts to provide early intervention to address significant disproportionalities, and the GAO recommended that the U.S. Department of Education establish a standard definition across all states.

A Delay Would Cause Significant Harm

Delaying these regulations by two years would unnecessarily prolong a process for addressing racial and ethnic disparities in special education that was started fourteen years ago. Congress prioritized providing resources to address problems of racial and ethnic overrepresentation in special education in the 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA. Nine years later, the GAO found that states were not meaningfully identifying significant disproportionality, and as a result, only 2 percent of all districts were required by states to use IDEA funds for early intervention. Five years after that GAO investigation, we are still waiting for the revised regulations that will address this problem by applying a standardized formula to go into effect.

Furthermore, this delay would immediately disadvantage students in districts around the country who stand to benefit from early intervention that would prevent them from being misidentified for services, placed in unnecessarily restrictive environments, or disproportionately removed from the classroom through suspensions or expulsions.

The Risk of Segregation

As researchers focused on school integration and the benefits of diverse classrooms, we want to call special attention to the urgency of addressing the overrepresentation of students of color in segregated special education settings. In 2015, 11 percent of white students and 10 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students with disabilities were educated in regular classrooms for less than 40 percent of the day, compared to 21 percent of Asian students and 17 percent of black students.

A large body of research shows that inclusive educational settings, in contrast with segregated classrooms, provide many benefits for students with disabilities, including increased reading and math achievement, improved attendance, fewer behavioral problems, increased graduation rates, greater likelihood of employment and living independently after graduation, and social and emotional benefits. A 2016 meta-analysis of 280 studies from twenty-five countries found, “There is clear and consistent evidence that inclusive educational settings can confer substantial short- and long-term benefits for students with and without disabilities.”

Importantly, inclusive classrooms also have benefits for students without disabilities. Students without disabilities show reduced prejudice and fear of difference, and increased self-esteem and sense of belonging when they are educated alongside peers with disabilities. The academic effects of being educated in an inclusive environment are by and large positive or neutral for students without disabilities. Thus, delaying the implementation of these regulations could also harm students without disabilities by depriving them of the greater opportunities to interact with peers with disabilities that would be afforded by increased placement of students with disabilities in inclusive settings.

Another reason for urgency is that racial disparities in the placement of students with disabilities could result in increased racial segregation in both regular classrooms and separate special education environments. Just as inclusive environments have been shown to have benefits for students with and without disabilities, racially integrated classrooms have well-documented benefits for students of all races and ethnicities. Identifying and addressing significant disproportionalities in the placement of students with disabilities could result in more students, with and without disabilities, also experiencing the benefits of racially diverse classrooms.

We urge the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services to implement these regulations on the previously approved timeline in order to aid states in identifying and addressing racial disparities in special education programs, and in particular to help more students with and without disabilities experience the benefits of ability-inclusive and racially integrated classrooms as soon as possible.