NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Race and Disability in Arizona Special Education

April 3, 2003

Race plays a primary role in determining whether a public school labels a child learning disabled, according to a new study by the Goldwater Institute. The study found that even after controlling for school spending, student and community poverty, and other factors, there was a pattern of placing minority students in special education classes at significantly higher rates in predominantly white public school districts in Arizona. As a result, Arizona taxpayers spend nearly $50 million annually on unnecessary special education programs.

The study showed that predominantly white districts label substantially higher percentages of their minority students as disabled compared to predominantly minority districts.

  • Disability rates for Hispanic students are 48 percent higher and for African-American students are 29 percent higher, in white-dominated districts compared to minority-dominated districts.
  • Meanwhile, predominantly white districts label 34 percent fewer white students as disabled.

Federal law provides perverse financial incentives to mislabel minority children by providing extra funds for physically disabled or learning disabled students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). One possibility to combat those incentives, suggest researchers, would build upon existing Arizona policy, which currently enables 1,170 special education students to attend private schools at public expense, by implementing a voucher system like Florida's McKay Scholarship Program.

Such a program would immediately help more than 8,000 students whose disability labels are attributable to the presence of the bounty system in Arizona. It would also restore authority over their children's education to the parents of Arizona's 87,298 disabled students.

Source: Matthew Ladner, "Race and Disability: Racial Bias in Arizona Special Education," No. 1781, March 2003, Goldwater Institute.


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