By Ariama Long

Research indicates that inequity for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities has led to disparities in special education enrollment.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has studied the overrepresentation of Black students in special education programs that relates to identification, placement and discipline. 

They concluded that Black children in special education are often subjected to harsher discipline than others, labeled as emotionally disturbed, experience teacher’s bias, and if disabled, are more likely to be restrained and excluded from general education classrooms. 

Black students have been overrepresented in special education in the U.S. since the Office of Civil Rights first started to sample school districts in 1968.

NYC Coalition for Educational Justice Director Natasha Capers added that older Black and brown students could be misclassified, due to behavior or environmental factors, into special education because it’s assumed “something has to be wrong with them.” Capers posited that contributes to why there are such high numbers of these kids represented in these programs.  

The center reported that Black students have been overrepresented in special education in the U.S. since the Office of Civil Rights first started to sample school districts in 1968.

Looking at the New York City DOE special education numbers from 2021, the amount of Black and brown students across the city seems to follow that trend. 

Mayor Eric Adams, the Department of Education (DOE) and Chancellor David Banks recently announced an expansion of early childhood education special-education seats across the five boroughs. Adams and Banks have similarly spoken about dyslexia, reading and learning disabilities as well these programs being underfunded.

“I know from personal experience what it’s like not to have had the support I needed to learn and thrive as a child. For far too long, our young students living with disabilities have struggled in a system that hasn’t been fully able to meet them where they are,” said Adams in a statement. 

Our work is to strike the balance between getting services to students who need them while ensuring that no one ends up in a classroom that does not support them in the way that they need.

Nicole Brownstein, Director of Media Relations at the DOE

Early childhood special education seats were usually limited and teachers were paid less than their general education teachers, said the Mayor’s Office. By early next year, the mayor will add a total of 800 new seats under a $130 million investment over two years.

“Our goal is for all of our students to have the opportunity to learn in the most enriching and inclusive environment possible, demonstrated by our recent early childhood special education expansion,” said Director of Media Relations at the DOE Nicole Brownstein. “Our work is to strike the balance between getting services to students who need them while ensuring that no one ends up in a classroom that does not support them in the way that they need.”

Brownstein said that the DOE acknowledges that there are inequities in the special education process they are actively working to address. The DOE is focusing on professional development on anti-racism and implicit bias training, adopting culturally responsive assessment practices, ensuring that psychologists have access to standardized tools that have been normed over a diverse group, and implementing new tools that allow clinicians to analyze data in an unbiased way.

Special education in the city is broken down into parts: early intervention constitutes infants and toddlers ages 0-3-years-old, early preschool is ages 3-5-years-old, and then “school aged” is K-12. 

Randi Levine, policy director for Advocates for Children of New York, said that based on the data, Black students disproportionately rank in high numbers in “school aged” special education classes compared to other races while simultaneously missing out on critical access to early intervention and preschool special education when needed. 

“In preschool there’s a different situation relative to overall enrollment, children of color are underrepresented among preschoolers receiving special education services while white children are overrepresented,” said Levine.

1,222 students were waiting for a preschool special education seat in a classroom, the shortage of seats being especially acute in the Bronx and southern Queens.

Levine said there certainly is a “worry” that Black and brown children that aren’t in early special education will need more intensive services later on in school, but there isn’t an official casualty as to why the inverse happens in preschool. 

In a report conducted by ​​Advocates for Children, researchers found that in the 2019-20 school year, 1,222 students were waiting for a preschool special education seat in a classroom, the shortage of seats being especially acute in the Bronx and southern Queens.

“I’m super happy that these seats are expanding. People have been saying that the lack of preschool special education seats were a problem since the announcement that there was going to be universal pre-K,” said Capers. 

Levine said that going into the COVID pandemic in 2020, school closures and online learning were very hard on special education students and those with Individualized Education Program (IEPs). She appreciates the commitment to the “legal and moral obligation” the city has taken on in expanding the early education seats, and notes how important it is to identify young children in need of special education services as early as possible.

“Early childhood special education is foundational to equitable, high quality public education in our city, and I’m encouraged to see it expanded with more seats and more providers,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams in a statement. “Children with disabilities deserve all the same opportunities to thrive in New York City schools, and this announcement is an essential step forwards for accessibility, inclusion, and educational equity. Quality early childhood education has an outsized impact on young people throughout their lives, and I’m glad to see the City Council and Adams administration heeding the calls of parents, providers, and advocates by funding these invaluable programs and services.”

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News.