A North Carolina learning disabilities association has filed a civil rights complaint with the federal government accusing the state Board of Education of discriminating against minority students with disabilities in low-performing schools.
The complaint, filed on June 1 by JoAnna Barnes, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of North Carolina, says a February change to statewide policy by the board will leave many students without the special education they need. She has asked the federal government to withhold education money from North Carolina until the board changes its policy.
“The result of this new North Carolina standard will be that different academic achievement standards are applied depending on which cultural group a student belongs,” Barnes said in her letter to Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary in the federal Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. “There will be one academic achievement standard for an Hispanic student, another for a white student, and yet another for an African-American student. In the end, no child in a low performing school will ever be determined to have a specific learning disability.”
At issue is a policy change that shifts how students are evaluated and selected for special education services.
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The new state policy allows for children to be compared with culturally and linguistically similar peers, as well as with others in their classrooms.
Barnes and the Learning Disability Association worry that such comparisons will “have a disproportionate impact on nonwhite students with disabilities because in North Carolina nonwhite students disproportionately are enrolled in the state’s 50 lowest performing schools.” Eighty-five percent of students enrolled in the 50 lowest performing schools in North Carolina are nonwhite, compared with 45 percent of the total student enrollment.
For example, Barnes wrote, at Y.E. Smith Elementary School in Durham about half the students are black, and only 5.7 percent pass both the state reading and math tests. Under the education board’s new policy, a black student at Smith being reviewed for special education services would be compared with the 94.3 percent who did not pass the reading and math tests.
Efforts to reach counsel for the state Board of Education were unsuccessful on Saturday.
The board’s changes to the special education services policy come amid an effort to redefine learning disabilities as schools grapple with funding cuts, understaffing and increased pressure from the federal No Child Left Behind program to raise overall performance levels.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires the evaluation of underperforming students.
But as education costs grow, some have adopted the theory that many learning disabilities and the programs devoted to them are mostly political creations in an attempt to funnel more tax dollars to special services. Some who subscribe to that notion argue that few learning disabilities exist and that much of the reason the students are underperforming is poor teaching methods.
If costs were shifted from special education programs, teachers in the classroom would have to turn more attention to the students with special needs, and too few state dollars would be available for teachers to respond to such needs for intervention, critics of the new policy say.
Barnes plans to share her concerns on Monday with Howard Manning, the retired special Superior Court judge who has held the state to task on education policies through the long-running Leandro case. The Leandro case involves the state Constitution mandate guaranteeing every child in North Carolina a sound, basic education.