NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 19, 2004

African-Americans and Hispanics in the Pennsylvania school system are more likely to be labeled "learning disabled" than in other school systems, according to a recent study.

  • African-Americans account for 16 percent of the national student population, but comprise 32 percent of the students in special education programs.
  • In Pennsylvania, African-American males in predominantly white schools are 89 percent more likely to be classified as learning-disabled, mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed than those attending predominantly minority schools -- with Hispanic males, the rate is 33 percent.
  • By contrast, teaching reading skills rigorously at an early age could prevent about 2 million children nationwide from being labeled "learning disabled," estimates Reid Lyon of the National Institutes of Health -- who believes that there is a link between learning disabilities and ineffective reading instruction.
However, the link between disabilities and literacy does not seem to explain why Pennsylvania's predominantly white schools are more likely to classify minorities as learning-disabled.

Matthew Ladner of the Commonwealth Foundation has suggested that the schools may be using special education as a segregation tool to hide "educational malpractice or latent racism." In response, he suggest that Pennsylvania adopt a scholarship program that allows parents of children who are labeled as "learning disabled" to choose another private or public school for their child.

Source: Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., "Racial Bias in Pennsylvania Special Education," Commonwealth Commentary, Vol. 04 No. 04, February 17, 2004, Commonwealth Commentary and G. Reid Lyon, "Learning Disabilities," The Future of Children, Special Education for Students with Disabilities, Spring 1996, Vol. 6, no. 1.


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