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Report: Low-Income Students More Likely To Be Placed In Special Ed

BOSTON — A new state-commissioned report finds that Massachusetts’ low-income students are nearly twice as likely to be placed in special education programs as other students.

The findings refute the widely held notion that higher-income parents, seeking more help for their children, are driving up special education rates. Seventeen percent of Massachusetts students are in special education programs — the second-highest rate in the nation.

The Boston Globe, which first reported the study, says it’s “expected to provoke debate over whether low-income districts are placing students in special education because of legitimate disabilities or because of weak academic programs that cause students to fall behind, or because some teachers want unruly students out of their classrooms.”

Reached by our Newscast unit, Thomas Hehir, one of the report’s authors, said many kids are identified as special needs students because they don’t get the help they need early on.

“It’s not to say that you ignore reading problems in children — you never should,” Hehir said. “What we’re saying is that those kids should be getting reading help before, for instance, they get referred to special education, and that doesn’t always happen.”

Hehir said districts should work to keep special needs students in classrooms with their peers.

Thomas Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, echoed that suggestion in an interview with our Newscast unit.

“The more we can keep youngsters in the mainstream, the better they feel personally and I think that the better their performance can be,” Scott said. “So that’s where we need to put our focus.”

The report, which is going to be presented tonight at a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, calls on the state to play an active role.

“The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should be more actively intervening in districts whose identification rates and use of substantially separate educational settings for low-income students — and students with disabilities as a whole — are substantially higher than average,” it reads.

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