GAO Reports Highlight the Intersection of Race and Privilege in Special Education
Feb 03

GAO Reports Highlight the Intersection of Race and Privilege in Special Education

It’s well known that both low income and students of color tend to be educated in underperforming, under-resourced school districts. That challenge alone is serious—but if a student in either a low-income or racially diverse district also has a disability, research suggests that they are much less likely to receive the specialized supports and services they need than their peers in wealthier school districts.

Together, two recent reports on special education by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO)Varied State Criteria May Contribute to Differences in Percentages of Children Served (April 2019) and IDEA Dispute Resolution Activity in Selected States Varied Based on School Districts’ Characteristics (November 2019)—highlight the disturbing fact that the structures governing special education can contribute significantly to outcome disparities based on a student’s race and privilege. 

The Challenge of Identification

The first obstacle for students with disabilities is simply being evaluated for and identified as eligible by their school district. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires each state to create procedures for identifying, locating, and evaluating students with disabilities—a process known as Child Find—but states are given a great deal of leeway in creating their own approaches, and even in setting eligibility criteria for services. This inserts a dangerous amount of subjectivity into the process. 

The GAO’s April report notes that in 2016, the percentage of the population aged 6 through 21 provided special education nationwide averaged 13%. However, in individual states, the percentages ranged from 6.4 percent to 15.1 percent—data that supports the Center’s findings in our analysis of 2015–2016 CRDC data. Clearly, identification policies in different states result in significantly different practices, potentially keeping hundreds of thousands of children from receiving the education they are owed by the law. Conversely, in some states, too many students may be identified and consequently, may experience lower expectations or less access to the general education curriculum. Studies also show that both students of color and low-income students are identified at different rates (both higher and lower) than their higher-income or white peers. Further evidence of this reality was documented by the Wall Street Journal researchers who found that on average students in affluent school districts were two to three times as likely to receive accommodations under Section 504—a plan that provides accommodations such as extended time to take tests due to having attention deficit or a learning disability—than peers in less affluent districts. When existing identification processes are inadequate, parents or guardians are often forced to seek out independent evaluations and assessments as well as services for their children that they must also pay for.

Over-Reliance on Parents

Students’ challenges don’t end when they are identified as having a disability and given an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Oversight of the quality of services provided is patchy, and it often falls to parents or guardians to ensure that their children are receiving the services they were promised by a school district through their IEP. When conversations between parents/guardians and schools become contentious and agreement cannot be reached by the IEP team, of which the parent is an equal member but frequently feels marginalized by school personnel, IDEA provides a formal way to resolve conflict—mediation, filing a complaint and due process hearings—which can be used by schools or parents; and state complaints, which can be used by any organization or individual, including parents. 

While these mechanisms are technically available to parents/guardians in every district in the country, the GAO’s November report found significant racial and economic disparities in the frequency with which they are accessed. The percentage of schools with at least one due process complaint, mediation request, or state complaint in the 2017-2018 school year was three to five times higher in very high-income districts than in very low-income districts. Similarly, dispute activity rates in districts with large populations of students of color are significantly lower than districts that are predominantly white. Anecdotally, the Center has found that reports are not surfacing in low-income districts where data and our experience point to potential discrimination.

It’s essential that we understand the significant obstacles both low-income families and parents/guardians of children of color may face in accessing IDEA’s formal ways to resolve conflict. As the GAO suggests, these may include difficulty paying for attorneys and expert witnesses at due process hearings and feeling disadvantaged compared to the financial and legal resources of the school district. Logistical challenges such as lack of work flexibility or access to childcare are also likely to disproportionately impact each of these communities. 

Compounding Challenges

Taken together, these two reports emphasize that special education identification rates are highly subjective and that the intersection of race and privilege significantly impacts students’ access to critical supports and consequently, their academic outcomes. When identification processes are not adequate or consistent, or when the services provided do not meet student needs, both lower-income and students of color are disproportionately affected. 

These reports should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers and advocates—change is needed to ensure all students receive the services they are guaranteed and deserve. 

Recommendations for Policymakers

First and foremost, federal, state, and local policymakers must recognize that these reports point to a clear need for change- the existing structure of policy, funding, and technical assistance is clearly not giving us the outcomes we need. At a minimum, this change should include redistributed funding and technical assistance to perennially underserved school districts. Relying on parents and guardians to draw attention to problems with education delivery is clearly problematic—districts and states must take more responsibility, particularly in low-income districts. 

The Department of Education (ED) should prevent these problems before they start. ED should help states learn how to accurately assess the distribution of IDEA Part B state grants for special education, as well as its technical assistance grants, to ensure that low-income districts (which are ground zero for the disparity shown in the GAO reports) are in fact prioritized and that schools have the training, resources, and legal understanding necessary to meet the educational needs of all students. It should also encourage districts to improve outreach to parents regarding their rights and options in cases of disputes. 

ED’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) can also take on a larger role in this area. The OCR should pay special attention to the data coming out of low-income districts, knowing that relying on parent complaints as indicators of problems is unreliable. 

Recommendations for Parents

While districts must be held accountable for educating students with disabilities, change is slow and students need supports now. For low-income parents or guardians, state complaints—a dispute resolution mechanism particularly underutilized in marginalized communities— may provide a clearer path forward than due process complaints or mediation. 

State complaints apply in situations in which a student’s IDEA rights are violated—for example, if the number of service hours specified in the student’s IEP are not being delivered. The state complaint process, which is triggered by any interested party submitting a letter of complaint to their state education agency, is far more straightforward than alternate mechanisms. Importantly, it is also far less resource-dependent, as it does not involve costly and time-intensive due-process hearings or mediation meetings. Instead, the state has 60 days after receiving a complaint to investigate and resolve it.

Parents can turn to their state parent training and information center for basic information about this option. Every state is required to make clear on their website how to file a state complaint as allowed under IDEA.  Notably, the Advocacy Institute has created a number of useful resources for parents interested in starting the state complaint process.

The Big Picture

The intersections of race, disability, and economic status are complex—and the ways in which they impact the education of students with disabilities can be devastating. These students, who often attend under-resourced and underperforming schools, are further disadvantaged by due process requirements that favor wealthy parents with the time and resources to spare. Policymakers and advocates must work to ensure that additional funding and training are allocated to low-income districts and to make dispute resolution processes fair and accessible to all families. 


Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Center's staff is currently working remotely. Please email with any questions and we will direct you to the appropriate member of our staff.Email Us