“Is Special Education Racist?” No, But People Are

Written By David Kirkland

For over a year now, I’ve been torn over an opinion piece publish in the NYTimes on June 24, 2015.  The authors asked: "Is special education racist?" My response at the time was: Of course, it is!

After more than a year of contemplation, my thinking on the issue is little changed. If special education isn’t racist, the people who administer operate within structures shaped by racism. Though the author’s of the article might beg to differ, sort of, there is no denying this truth.

Having read Morgan et al’s paper thoroughly (the article is based on a longer research paper), it seems to me that basis of their argument is that White students receive more "ability" support (through federal legislation and other educational policies) than do so-called “minorities.” Put another way, they are arguing that there are more “minorities” who deserve services and support who aren’t getting them.

“Our findings indicate that federal legislation and policies currently designed to reduce minority over-representation in special education may be misdirected,” said Morgan, the study’s first author. “These well-intentioned policies instead may be exacerbating the nation’s education inequities by limiting minority children’s access to potentially beneficial special education and related services to which they may be legally entitled.”

The premise of this argument could very well be correct; however, Morgan and his team’s attempt to dismantle the narrative of overrepresentation seems a bit heavy handed. It is conceivable to have both underserved (as opposed to “underrepresented”—their terminology) “minority” students in special education, while maintaining an over-serving (and underrepresentation) of Whites in special education. It can also be true that “minorities” are overrepresented (though underserved) in special education.

There are some textures to the argument (as well as to the science—even given its limitations) to which we who are interested in equity in education should be sensitive. The argument is not a full-on assault against the mission of expanding equity and excellence in education. Even still, I think there is important room to recast the argument, better explaining the nuances found in the ironies of being overrepresented yet underserved.

Essentially we need to better describe the confounding ways that we exist in a system of inequity in education that complexly disadvantages its most vulnerable students.

Read “Is Special Education Racist”.

Learn more about the study that the article is based on.