Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/today/30331AZspecialed.html

No bias cited here in special- ed labels
Tucson, Arizona Monday, 31 March 2003
By Jennifer Sterba

Minority students are more likely to be labeled learning-disabled in predominantly Anglo Arizona school districts than in racially diverse districts, a study released today says.

But Tucson school districts appear to buck the trend, with their percentage of minority special-education students accurately reflecting districts' overall racial makeup.

Local school officials say if teachers are mislabeling students as learning-disabled, it's the result of an attempt to provide additional or remedial services with today's academic funding - or lack thereof.

But local minority activists say Tucson shouldn't come out smelling like a rose in this report, because they hear parents complain of similar problems here.

Statewide, "disability rates for Hispanic students are 48 percent higher in white-dominated districts compared to minority-dominated districts, and 29 percent higher for African-American students," said Matthew Ladner, an independent researcher who conducted the study for the Goldwater Institute.

The Goldwater Institute calls itself a nonpartisan research and educational organization dedicated to advancing public policy in Arizona. Funded through private donations, it promotes philosophies of the late Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater: limited government and educational freedom.

Ladner said his results appeared even after taking into account school spending levels and student socioeconomics.

He examined a few Tucson-area school districts to examine if the statewide trend could be found locally.

The numbers say no.

The Catalina Foothills Unified School District - with an almost 90 percent Anglo student population - put roughly the same percentage of Hispanics into special education as Anglo students.

About 12 percent of the district's Hispanic students participate in special education, and about 11 percent of the Anglos do.

The Tucson Unified School District, the city's largest, with about 62,000 students, placed 11 percent of its Hispanic students and about 13 percent of its black students in special education.

The minority-dominated district placed 11 percent of its Anglo students in special education. Roughly 44 percent of TUSD's students are Anglo; 48 percent are Hispanic and 7 percent are black.

"What the study's really about is the districts who are more than 75 percent white," Ladner said. "Flagstaff is a good example."

The Flagstaff Unified School District - which is 76 percent Anglo - placed 13.5 percent of its Anglo students, 15 percent of its Hispanics and 23.8 percent of its blacks in special education.

Black students account for less than 3 percent of Flagstaff's student population.

"This same pattern has popped up in other states," Ladner said.

The study's numbers don't surprise Ray Clarke, president of the Tucson Urban League.

"That's very much a confirmation of the frustration many of those parents have been feeling for an awful long time," he said. "We hear those frustrations year after year."

Lorraine Lee, vice president of Tucson's Chicanos por la Causa, said the study raises a high level of concern. "It's very sad," she said.

"If in fact there is a trend, then we should all be concerned, because if you look at the numbers and who is going to be the future labor force, then we better start working really fast because that is our future," Lee said. "Our future is going to be within that huge population."

In his report, Ladner blames racial prejudice and "perverse financial incentives" to mislabel minority students.

The federal government, along with 16 states, changed its funding method in 1997 by allocating lump sums based on school demographics.

But Arizona still relies on what Ladner calls the "bounty system" - the more special-education students a district has, the more money it gets from the state.

That comes to between $10 and $14 per special-education student - in addition to the average $5,000 per student the state gives school districts.

However, when you consider one special-education teacher's salary and the cost of books, materials and programs - more than $50,000 - then $10 doesn't go very far, said Lorrane McPherson, who heads TUSD's special education.

A special-needs student also can require speech or occupational therapy, a child psychologist or social services.

That $10 doesn't even go directly toward special education, said Alan Storm, assistant superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District. It goes into the district's general fund to be divided up among other programs, he said.

"My perception is teachers want to get kids services," McPherson said. "Something schools struggle with is how to provide those services."

Arizona continues to rank near the bottom nationally in per-student spending.

McPherson hypothesizes that teachers are doing what they can to get low-achieving students the attention they need. If children are labeled as learning-disabled, they can then be pulled out of regular classrooms for tutoring and one-one-one reading instruction.

"What teachers look for is a way to get services to the kids," McPherson said.

Ladner calls those students teaching-disabled as opposed to learning-disabled.

"Kids who are not taught reading properly early on can develop what looks like a learning disability," he said. "Special education was never intended to be remedial education."

"Teachers have so much to keep track of," Lee said. "I think that many times it is easier for a teacher to put that 'problem child' somewhere else."

Local parent Dawn Shafe pulled her now-11-year-old son out of public school when educators tried to label him mentally retarded. Shafe identifies her son as white. Teachers told her repeatedly that her son was failing classes. Eventually, at a parent-teacher conference, teachers told Shafe her son couldn't be taught, she said.

Shafe's son tested borderline for mild mental retardation.

Not wanting her son to be labeled, Shafe enrolled him two years ago at Turning Point School, which specializes in preparing learning-disabled children to return to regular classrooms.

"Everything they told me my son was not capable of learning he learned in eight months at Turning Point," Shafe said. "He's able to pick up a book and read, and that's a huge accomplishment for him."

* Contact reporter Jennifer Sterba at 573-4191 or at jsterba@azstarnet.com.