HJR 707

Joint Subcommittee Studying the Overrepresentation of African-American Students in Special Education Programs

July 30, 1999, Richmond

The first meeting of the Joint Subcommittee Studying the Overrepresentation of African-American Students in Special Education Programs introduced the members to the history of special education in America and issues related to the disproportionate representation of African-American students in special education.


Virginia was among the first states to require the education of handicapped children, long before it was federally mandated. With the passage of P. L. 94-142 in the early 1970s, the Code of Virginia was conformed to the federal law, and the Board of Education established the Advisory Board on Special Education to advise it concerning future changes in the federal law and regulations, special education programs and services in the Commonwealth, the needs of disabled students and school divisions, and the necessity to amend Virginia special education laws and regulations. After a series of amendments by Congress, P. L. 94-142 was retitled the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In 1997, Congress reauthorized the federal law with several important amendments, to which final regulations were issued on March 12, 1999. Although the basic requirements under the law have been retained, certain of these requirements have been clarified, new definitions have been included, and provisions regarding the discipline of special education students and state reporting requirements have been added.

The overrepresentation of African-Americans in certain special education programs has been a persistent problem negatively affecting large numbers of African-American students for over 30 years. Research findings indicate that more minority children are served in special education programs than would be expected from the proportion of minority students in the general school population and that African-American students are routed more frequently than white students into classes for the mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed and behavioral disorders, and learning disabled. Although African-Americans represent 16 percent of elementary and secondary enrollments nationally, they constitute 21 percent of total enrollments in special education. Poor African-American children are 2.3 times more likely to be identified by their teacher as having mental retardation than their white counterparts and to be served in less inclusive settings. Minority youth with disabilities are more likely to drop out of high school--the dropout rate is 68 percent higher for minorities than for whites. More than 50 percent of minority special education students in large cities drop out of school.

In response to these concerns, Congress has stipulated in the IDEA that greater efforts are needed to prevent the intensification of problems connected with mislabeling among minority children with disabilities. Under the IDEA amendments of 1997, states are required to submit special education child count, educational environment, exiting, and discipline data by race and ethnicity beginning in the 1998-1999 school year in order that the disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic minorities in special education and dropout rates may be monitored. Local educational agencies are required to use racially and culturally nondiscriminatory tests and other evaluation materials for identifying students as eligible for special education. Such tests must be administered in the child's native tongue or other mode of communication unless it is not feasible to do so. States must also collect and examine data to determine if race is the basis of significant disproportionality in the identification and placement of students with disabilities in particular educational settings. If the state determines that significant disproportionality exists, it must provide for the review and revision of policies, procedures, and practices used to identify or place students to ensure that they meet the requirements of IDEA.

Special Education in Virginia

The Department of Education's director of special education and student affairs presented an overview of special education programs in the Commonwealth and a statistical summary of students served by such programs. The data stimulated questions concerning the process by which students are identified for special education; whether teachers, administrators, counselors, and other instructional support staff are professionally trained to assess students for special education; and the significant discrepancies between African-American and white students identified as mentally retarded and between males and females identified as having speech and language disorders. In light of the many questions posed by the joint subcommittee, the department was asked to provide further analysis of the data and to respond to specific inquiries at the next meeting.


Representatives of the U. S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) briefed the members concerning federal investigations of allegations of racial and ethnic discriminatory practices in special education in Virginia. In 1993, among school divisions in Virginia, there were 14 compliance reviews and one review resulting from a complaint. As a part of its reviews, OCR considered school division reporting data for special education programs, disparities, students served, placements, and other related information. Officials at the Department of Education and the relevant school divisions were consulted.

Fourteen of the school divisions have entered into voluntary agreements with OCR to address specific problems within the respective school divisions. An agreement in the fifteenth review was reached in December 1998. Such agreements may include technical assistance, staff training, and sharing of best practices, which the school division may consider to correct current and prevent future problems. Further, it was noted that a growing number of racial and ethnic minority parents are pursuing the formal complaint route with agencies of the federal government (or litigation) because school divisions have not been responsive to their concerns when they have disagreed with the school division's identification of their children for special education or when they have expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of education provided their children, the disciplinary action taken or the educational placement, or when school divisions have ignored their complaints about discriminatory practices.


Specialists in special education, including representatives of approved teacher preparation programs and public school administrators, explained the phenomenon of disproportionality by race in special education programs based on years of professional training and their knowledge, observations, and experiences in the field. Although it is difficult to identify any specific determinant which contributes to the overrepresentation of African-American students in special education programs, they noted several factors which have been substantiated by research regarding the problem.

Meeting Schedule

The joint subcommittee agreed that the fundamentals of special education will be the focus of its August meeting in Richmond.

The Honorable A. Donald McEachin, Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Brenda H. Edwards