An unwritten law of New York City politics has it that all issues eventually boil down to race and poverty. Special education is no exception. Though in theory an educational program for disabled children—those who are deaf and blind, or afflicted with autism or cerebral palsy—in practice  special education in New York City has developed into a vast educational gulag for poor, hard-to-teach minority children. This is an especially cruel irony, since the segregation of so-called "educable mentally retarded" minority students helped spark the drive for special ed more than 20 years ago. Now the federal government has gotten wind of the situation, and it is none too happy.

In a recent report, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) documented the racial disproportion in New York's special-ed system. Blacks and Hispanics make up 73 percent of the Board of Education's nearly 1 million students. Yet in special ed, they constitute 82 percent of the children labeled learning disabled and 89 percent of those deemed emotionally disturbed.

Invoking Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, OCR reached a "memorandum of understanding" with the Board of Education, committing the city to reduce the number of minority kids in special ed. The memorandum reinforces some of the sensible measures that Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew had already announced last fall for revamping the system, including early intervention for children with emerging academic and behavioral problems and more systematic testing to evaluate the progress of children already in special ed.

Unfortunately, the OCR memorandum will also add still more paper-shuffling busywork to special ed's bureaucratic bloat. The Board will now have to keep track of the race, ethnicity, and language of every student referred to and placed in special ed in each of the 32 school districts and in preschool; it must also analyze this data twice a year. More ominously for those familiar with the Jose P. consent decree, which has kept special education in New York under the control of the courts for the past 18 years, OCR will closely monitor the memorandum's implementation over the next three years and will "immediately reopen the case" if the Board is not progressing to federal satisfaction. It doesn't take a psychic to foresee more regulations, more records, more timetables, and more supervisors—in other words, Jose P. all over again.

The greatest danger posed by federal intervention in the miserable morass of special education is that it will harm the kids it sets out to help. Though the memorandum never says so explicitly, it implies that the disproportionate number of minority children in the system is simply a result of discrimination. But teachers, supervisors, and outside researchers describe a very different problem: children sent off into special ed because they live in such chaotic homes and neighborhoods that they are ill-prepared for sitting still in a classroom, much less doing actual schoolwork. If the federal government refuses to see this deeper reality, it will undermine efforts to face the situation squarely and to develop flexible approaches to aid these kids.


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