Washington Black students end up in special education classes much more often than whites, setting them apart and saddling them with less-demanding work and lower expectations, new studies say.
School officials respond that special education often is the only resource they have to help children with learning and emotional difficulties.
"In some places, schools are confronted with kids who are not learning adequately, and they search for solutions," said Paul Houston of the American Association of School Administrators. "Special ed is one of those solutions. ... Realistically, in many cases, schools don't have those resources available to them, outside of the special ed system."
A series of studies commissioned by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University said black public school students are three times as likely as whites to be identified as "mentally retarded" and in need of special education services, which ideally include placement in smaller classes with more individual tutoring and instruction by specially certified teachers.
In many cases, the researchers said, students in special education classes are kept apart from their peers and have teachers who are not certified in special education. The curriculum is watered down and school districts often label black students as emotionally disturbed when they have learning disabilities.
The richer the school district, the more likely that black male students would be labeled mentally retarded, the studies said, pointing to especially high incidences in five states Connecticut, Nebraska, South Carolina, Mississippi and North Carolina.
"Across the board, this is a problem for minority students," Daniel Losen, a lawyer for the civil rights project, said.
Losen said minority students often end up in special education programs because their parents lack both knowledge of the system and of their legal rights under federal law.
Nationally, there were fewer Latino students proportionally in special ed classes. This did not hold true, however, in districts that had large numbers of Latino students.
Using 1997 Education Department data, the studies found that, nationwide, black students were 2.9 times as likely as whites to be identified as having mental retardation. They were 1.9 times as likely to be identified with an emotional problem, 1.3 times as likely to be identified with a specific learning disability.
American Indian students also were slightly more likely to be identified as mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed or with a specific learning disability.
A spokeswoman for Education Secretary Rod Paige said the department is awaiting results of a separate study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. The report will be issued as early as this summer, she said.
Teachers' unions welcomed the findings. National Education Assn. President Bob Chase said the NEA "has long decried the misplacement of minority students in special education programs and classrooms."
Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said, "One of the things that we emphasize ... is the ability to help teachers develop better teaching skills, particularly in the early grades, because that's where they're overloaded."
Vince Ferrandino of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and a former commissioner of education in Connecticut, said the findings weren't surprising.
"If we're talking about 'leaving no child behind,' as the president has indicated, then we have to think about these children as well," he said.
The studies recommend that the Education Department and the U.S. Office for Civil Rights more aggressively enforce special education rules and that states intervene where minority students are overrepresented in such classes.