Disproportionate Numbers of Minorities and English Learners in Special Education Programs

The overrepresentation and underrepresentation of minority students in special education programs represents a national issue that has pervaded society for the past several decades. Mark Guiberson, author of “Hispanic Representation in Special Education: Patterns and Implications,” explains that “overrepresentation occurs when the percentage of minority students in special education programs is greater than that in the school population as a whole.” Underrepresentation, on the other hand, occurs when schools fail to place students with disabilities in the appropriate programs. While students enrolled in special education programs represent approximately 13.1% of the national student population, the disproportionate enrollment of minority students in special education programs varies state-to-state.

For example, according to Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute, the minority student population in New York comprises approximately 61.6% of the student population in special education programs, while only an approximate 42.5% of the general student population classifies as minorities. The startling 19% difference between the general population and the population of minority students classified as having disabilities represents an overrepresentation of minority students in special education.

The Public Policy Research Institute found that approximately 14.7% of Oregon’s minority student population classifies as having disabilities while minority children represent 18% of its population, representing a difference of 3.3%. This 3.3% difference between Oregon’s percentage of minority children in the general population and its percentage of minority children in special education represents an underrepresentation of minority students in special education.

While alarming, the respective overrepresentation and underrepresentation of minority students in special education leads to an equally surprising corollary: the overrepresentation and underrepresentation of Limited English Proficiency students (LEPs) in special education programs. The government and most legal agencies tend to use “LEP” to describe students not born in the United States, students whose native language is not English, students who come from an environment where another language represents the dominate language, and students who display difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, and understanding English.

According to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a statement by Peter Zamora, “nearly 80% of K-12 [LEPs] are Spanish-speaking Latinos,” with researchers predicting that, by 2025, one-quarter of the nation’s student population will identify as LEPs.

Of this large population of LEPs, researchers have estimated that “as many as three-fourths of [LEPs] enrolled in special education programs are improperly placed.” According to Guiberson, misidentification “occurs when students with disabilities are identified as having a disability different from the one they actually have” or when schools classify students without disabilities as having disabilities. Misidentification can easily lead to overrepresentation of LEPs in special education programs.

Trends of LEP overrepresentation and underrepresentation exist across the country, particularly in states with the largest number of LEP students. According to Rose M. Payan and Michael T. Nettles, authors of “Current State of English-Language Learners in the U.S. K-12 Student Population,” California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois respectively represent the top-five states with the largest number of LEPs, while South Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana represent the states with the fastest growing LEP student population.

According to the Texas Education Agency, in the 2009-2010 school year, LEPs represented 14.7% of Texas’ student population enrolled in special education programs. Compared to the 9% of the general population enrolled in special education programs, the state’s 14.7% represents a disproportionate overrepresentation of LEP students enrolled in special education programs.

The overrepresentation continued throughout the next school year with LEPs representing 14.4% of the student population enrolled in special education programs, while only 8.8% of the general population required special education services. Furthermore, in the 2011-2012 school year, LEPs represented 14.3% of the student population enrolled in special education programs, while only 8.6% of the general student population participated in special education programs.

In contrast, Florida’s population of LEP students faces a severe underrepresentation in special education programs. In 2010, when the special education population represented 19.3% of the general student population, LEPs represented only 5.5% of the special education population.

Similarly, in 2011, while the general education population enrolled in special education programs dropped to 19%, the LEP population enrolled in special education programs rose to 5.9%. The underrepresentation persisted in 2012 when the general education population enrolled in special education programs leveled out at 18.6%, while the LEP population enrolled in special education programs rose to 6%.

The overrepresentation and underrepresentation of LEPs in the special education population can largely be credited to the lack of certified professionals in the areas of both special education and English language acquisition.

For example, during the 2009-2010 school year, there was an average of 33.3 students per English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Texas, compared to an average of 14.5 students for each general education teacher. The trend similarly persisted throughout the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, with the average students-per-ESL-teacher ratio representing 43.5 and 47 per ESL teacher, respectively.

The disparity seems to intensify with the underrepresentation of LEP students in special education programs. In Florida, during the 2009-2010 school year, there was an average of 178.6 students per bilingual teacher, compared to an average of 15.8 students for each general education teacher. The trend similarly persisted throughout the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, with the average students-per-bilingual-teacher ratio representing 219.4 and 241.7 per bilingual teacher, respectively.

Researchers and educational theorists also claim that inadequate assessments and the failure to distinguish between struggles faced by LEP students and struggles caused by learning disabilities also contribute to the misidentification and overrepresentation of LEP students in the special education population.

To better distinguish between the educational struggles exhibited during English language acquisition and struggles exhibited in individuals with learning disabilities, theorists have suggested implementing a three-phase instructional and assessment reform. This three-phase reform includes creating a school environment that encourages the success of LEP students through the use of specific instructional strategies and providing early intervention through supplementary instruction. Early intervention strategies include clinical teaching, the implementation and use of Teacher Assistance Teams, and general education alternatives. The final phase of the three-phase reform includes referring students, who have received the benefits of both a positive school environment and early intervention strategies but still seem to significantly struggle with the educational material, to special education.

While no national standards have been put into place to better serve the overrepresented and underrepresented LEP population in special education programs, the issue presents a societal problem that, if not curtailed, could cause severe and long-lasting intellectual and emotional scars.

Megan Mikutis

About Megan Mikutis

Megan Mikutis is a second year student at the University of Houston Law Center. She graduated from the University of Houston – Clear Lake in 2012 with a B.A. in Literature. While obtaining her undergraduate degree, Megan tutored undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students in writing while working for the University of Houston – Clear Lake Writing Center. This summer, Megan worked for the Center for Children, Law, and Policy and had the opportunity to compose a policy statement discussing the disproportionate representation of Limited English Proficient students in special education. Currently, Megan serves as the President of the Student Bar Association as well as a member of the Hispanic Law Student Association. Megan is most interested in education and special education issues.

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