Westat, a research and professional services company, will lead a new technical assistance center to address data quality for significant disproportionality in special education, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services announced Thursday.
The five-year contract to help states with collecting, reporting, analyzing and using data about racial disparities in special education totals $14.5 million. The center is called the Data Center for Addressing Significant Disproportionality.
While the field is encouraged by states working proactively with districts to identify inequalities and find root causes of racial over- and under-identification in special education, there's more work to be done, said Glenna Wright-Gallo, assistant secretary of OSERS and a former state director of special education.
"There's been a long-standing history of inequities around specific groups, and we want to make sure that we continue our efforts to improve, and that we continue to make progress around this," Wright-Gallo said.
In a March notice proposing the technical assistance center, the Education Department pointed to a nearly 100% increase between the 2018-19 and 2020-21 school years in the number of districts identified as significantly disproportionate in special education.
Districts identified as significantly disproportionate has increased
Federal rules under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act require that districts measure racial disparities in special education annually in 14 categories — including a student’s disability identification, educational placement and discipline — for seven racial and ethnic groups. This means there are potentially 98 different calculations to determine if a district is or isn’t significantly disproportionate.
Districts identified as significantly disproportionate must set aside 15% of their federal IDEA Part B funds for programs that remedy this problem, including for interventions that support all students and students at risk of needing special education services.
In comments submitted to the Education Department in response to the proposed technical assistance center, a few state education agencies voiced concerns that the new center would overlap with assistance already provided by other OSEP-funded centers.
Wright-Gallo said the new center would add to the existing support by accelerating outreach to states to help them build capacity to work with their districts. States can then help support districts with investigating root causes of significant disproportionality and looking for improvements in the districts' policies and practices.
"It's not duplicative," Wright-Gallo said. "It's further support and taking it further."
Amy Bitterman, a senior study director at Westat is the center's project director. In an email, Bitterman said Westat looks forward to working with the Education Department and states on this issue because "all children — regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic status, or background — are entitled to an individualized high-quality education that helps prepare them for a successful and fulfilling future."