A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

To Assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of All Children with Disabilities - 1996

Number and Characteristics of Students with Disabilities in Inner-City Districts

This section compares and contrasts inner-city students with students in suburban and rural areas in terms of disability, socioeconomic status, language proficiency, and racial/ethnic identity, using data from OCR, the Common Core of Data Public School Universe File (CCD), and other sources. For these analyses, 8 percent of all school districts in the U.S. were classified as inner-city districts. Although this is a small percentage of all districts, inner-city districts enroll 26 percent of all students, according to OCR district student counts. This reflects the large populations of students in inner-city schools and school districts, compared to those of rural or suburban districts.1

Disabilities

Table 4.1 shows the percentage of students with disabilities in inner-city and non-inner-city areas by disability based on analysis of OCR2 and CCD3 data. The data suggest that inner-city and non-inner-city areas have similar percentages of students with disabilities--10.4 percent and 10.8 percent, respectively. The data also suggest little variation between the two types of areas by type of disability, although non-inner-city areas appear to report slightly higher percentages of students with speech or language impairments (2.7 percent versus 2.1 percent) and a higher percentage of students with specific learning disabilities (5.4 percent versus 5.1) than inner-city areas.


Table 4.1 Estimated Number and Percentage of Students with Disabilities in Inner-City and Non-Inner-City School Districts in the 1992-93 School Year
                                    Inner-City          Non-inner-city Disability                        Number  Percent     Number    Percent ==========                       =======  =======     ======    ======= Specific learning disabilities   554,044    5.1%   1,684,256      5.4% Speech or language impairments   232,949    2.1      847,552      2.7 Mental retardation               147,819    1.4      403,450      1.3 Serious emotional disturbance     89,342    0.8      205,314      0.7 Multiple impairments              29,625    0.3       45,570      0.2 Hearing impairments               16,209    0.2       36,614      0.1 Orthopedic impairments            13,964    0.1       27,768      0.1 Other health impairments          23,268    0.2       58,041      0.2 Visual impairments                 6,135    0.1       15,118      0.1 Autism                             7,001    0.1        8,202      0.0 Deaf-blindness                       713    0.0        1,115      0.0 Traumatic brain injury               463    0.0        2,661      0.0 ---------------------------------------------------------------------- All disabilities               1,121,532   10.4%   3,335,661     10.8% 
NOTE: Percentage in "All disabilities" row may not equal sum of other rows due to rounding.

SOURCE: The 1992 Office for Civil Rights Elementary and Secondary School Survey and the 1992 Common Core of Data Public School Universe File.


Socioeconomic Status

Many people in America's cities live in poverty. Based on the eligibility criteria for the free lunch program, OCR data indicate that 30 percent of all inner-city students live in poverty, compared to 18 percent of students living outside the inner cities. Many of those living in poverty are also members of racial or ethnic minorities. One study of special education students in a poor region of a large urban school system found that 90 percent of the students receive some form of public assistance, 95 percent belong to a minority group, and only 10 to 25 percent live with two parents (Gottlieb et al., 1994). Because socioeconomic status, educational levels, and family structure are related to academic achievement(Laosa; Brown; Carter & Segura; Duran; Henderson; Lambert; NCES; Rosenthal, Baker, & Ginsburg as cited in Hopstock et al., 1986), poverty levels may affect the need for educational services, in general, and special education, in particular.

Data from the NLTS,4 which included a nationally representative sample of secondary school students, indicate that families of students with disabilities in urban areas are more likely to live in poverty than families of students in suburban or rural areas. At the time of the study, 47 percent of urban youth with disabilities lived in households with an annual income of less than $12,000 in 1986 dollars, compared to 34 percent of rural and 19 percent of suburban youth with disabilities (Valdés et al., 1990).

Limited English Proficiency

Between 1980 and 1990, the number of limited English proficient school-age children increased by 27 percent, from 1.9 million to 2.4 million (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1980, 1990). The majority of limited English proficient students live in three states--California, Texas, and New York. In California, 15 percent of all 5- to 17-year-olds are limited English proficient students.

Urban districts in general, and inner-city districts in particular, enroll a greater percentage of limited English proficient students than nonurban schools, and some large urban centers have very high concentrations of limited English proficient students. OCR data suggest that 5 percent of special education students in inner-city districts have limited English proficiency, compared to 1 percent in non-inner-city districts. In addition, NLTS data suggest that 4 percent of secondary school students with disabilities in urban areas speak another language at home, compared to 2 percent in nonurban areas (Vald?s et al., 1990).

Racial/Ethnic Identity

Public schools located in inner cities enroll almost twice as many African American and Hispanic students as do non-inner-city schools (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1992). Historically, nonwhite students have been disproportionately represented in special education. Although this issue has received significant attention over the past 25 years, there is evidence that the problem of disproportionate representation continues (Harry, 1992).

Harry (1992) used OCR data to analyze the special education enrollment rate, by race/ethnicity, for the nation as a whole and in selected States. She reports that placement of African American students in special education is generally high relative to their representation in the general student population. Harry found that 16 percent of all students in the nation are African Americans, but they account for 35 percent of the students with educable mental retardation, 27 percent of the students with trainable mental retardation, and 27 percent of the students with serious emotional disturbance.5 In examining special education placements for Hispanic students, Harry found that in some individual States and in some disability categories, Hispanics are over and underrepresented relative to their proportion of the total population. However, Hispanic students account for 10 percent of all students in the nation and for 5 to 10 percent of those in the four disability categories, indicating no disproportionate representation nationwide. According to Harry's analysis, Asian students are generally represented in special education at a rate lower than their proportion in the population. Nationwide, Asians account for 3 percent of the student body and 0-2 percent of those in the four disability categories on which OCR collects race/ethnicity data. OCR data suggest that white students are consistently placed in programs for students with learning disabilities at a rate higher than their proportion in the population (Harry, 1992).

NLTS data (in Harry, 1994) are consistent with OCR data in suggesting that African American youth are placed in programs for students with mental retardation and serious emotional disturbance at a rate higher than their proportion in the population. In addition, the NLTS data suggest that disproportionate representation of racial or ethnic minorities occurs not only in the disability categories that require professionals to make judgments about placements, such as mental retardation. Overrepresentation also occurs in categories in which professionals are supposed to be able to place students using objective criteria, such as deaf/blindness, visual impairments, orthopedic impairments, and other health impairments. According to Wagner (1995), this suggests that factors other than racial discrimination contribute to the disproportionate representation of particular groups.

As the OCR data in table 4.2 indicate, non-inner-city districts have higher percentages of African American and Hispanic students in some disability categories than inner-city districts. A higher percentage of African American students in non-inner-city districts (2.8 percent) are reported to have mental retardation, compared to inner-city districts (2.0 percent). Higher percentages of both African American and Hispanic students in non-inner-city areas are reported as having specific learning disabilities compared to students in inner-city districts. However, this disproportion does not hold across disabilities. Despite the fact that a large number of African American and Hispanic students attend inner-city schools and are reportedly overrepresented in special education, data from OCR, as shown in table 4.2, suggest that inner-city and non-inner-city districts enroll virtually the same percentage of students in special education.


Table 4.2 Estimated Number and Percentage of Students in Special Education in Inner-City and Non-Inner-City School Districts, by Ethnicity and Disability, 1992-93
School Year

Race and Disability Category Inner-City Non-Inner-City Total
Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent
White, non-Hispanic

Mental retardation
Serious emotional
   disturbance
Specific learning
   disability



58,772

40,409

241,678



1.3

.9

5.2



269,010

157,934

1,280,875



1.1

.7

5.4



327,782

198,343

1,522,553



1.1

.7

5.3

African American,
non-Hispanic

Mental retardation
Serious emotional
   disturbance
Specific learning
   disability




65,535

35,433

176,107




2.0

1.1

5.5




103,947

34,645

222,730




2.8

.9

6.1




169,482

70,078

398,837




2.5

1.0

5.8

Hispanic

Mental retardation
Serious emotional
   disturbance
Specific learning
   disability



20,339

12,362

124,042



.8

.5

5.0



20,278

8,043

138,289



.8

.3

5.5



40,617

20,405

262,331



.8

.3

5.3

Totala/

Mental retardation
Serious emotional
   disturbance
Specific learning
   disability



147,820

89,342

554,045



1.4

.8

5.1



403,451

205,314

1,684,257



1.3

.7

5.4



551,271

294,656

2,238,302



1.3

.7

5.3

All Students with Disabilitiesb/ 1,121,532 10.3 3,335,661 10.6 4,457,193 10.5

a/ Also includes Asian and American Indian students (not shown).

b/ Consists of all students with an IEP.

SOURCE: The 1992 Office for Civil Rights Elementary and Secondary School Survey and the 1992 Common Core of Data Public School Universe File.


Wagner (1995) suggests that poverty, and not race or ethnicity, is the important factor influencing the disproportionate representation of minority groups in special education. Using NLTS data, Wagner compared the distribution of white, African American, and Hispanic secondary school-age students with that of the general population within each of three income groups. Table 4.3 shows that after accounting for differences in income, the disproportionate representation of African American students decreases considerably. According to the analysis, the disproportionate representation of African Americans in special education is a function of relatively low income and the disabilities associated with poverty. Only in the lowest income category is the difference in African American representation between students in special education and the general population (44.4 percent and 37.4 percent, respectively) statistically significant. When income is accounted for, disproportionate representation remains in three disability categories--speech impairments, visual impairments, and mental retardation.


Table 4.3 Ethnic Distribution, by Income Category, of Secondary School-Age Students with Disabilities and Those in the General Population
                                                                Adjusted                                              General     Population of Income Category and        Students with     Student     Students with Ethnic Distribution        Disabilitiesa/   Populationb/  Disabilitiesc/
===================        ============    ===========   =============   Lowest Income Category
Percentage who were:   African American            39.6             37.4         44.4   Hispanic                    10.9             16.9          --   White                       47.0             58.6         54.4   Middle Income Category  Percentage who were:   African American            21.5             20.5         23.7   Hispanic                     9.4             13.8          --   White                       66.8             75.5         73.7    Highest Income Category
Percentage who were:   African American            10.4              9.2         10.7   Hispanic                     2.7              6.8          --   White                       83.5             87.5         86.4    
a/ Income categories differ somewhat for the two populations. NLTS categories are: <$12,000, $12,000 to $24,999, and greater than or equal to $25,000. Census categories are: <$10,000, $10,000 to $24,999, and greater than or equal to $25,000. Thus, the highest income category is the most directly comparable. Students in the NLTS "other" ethnic category are not reported here because there are no corresponding figures for them, by income category, in Census data.

b/ Data are from the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1990) Money Income of Households, Families and Persons in the United States, 1988 and 1989. Current Population Reports, Consumer Incomes, Series P-60, No. 172. Data are for families with one or more related children between the ages of 6 and 17.

c/ Because individuals in the Census category "Hispanic" may be of any race, NLTS ethnic distributions are adjusted in this column to apportion the Hispanic population in each income category among the other categories in proportions equal to their representation in the population.

SOURCE: Wagner, Mary (1995). The Contributions of Poverty and Ethnic Background to the Participation of Secondary School Students in Special Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.


This section described the population of students with disabilities in inner cities. Data suggest that inner-city districts serve similar percentages of students in special education as suburban and rural districts, but inner-city districts enroll a larger percentage of students living in poverty, a larger percentage of students with limited English proficiency, and a larger percentage of students from racial/ethnic minority groups. Data from OCR and NLTS confirm that minority students are disproportionately represented in special education, but the data suggest that over-representation may, in part, be a function of higher rates of poverty among minorities.


1 To describe the population of students with disabilities in inner-city school districts, data from the Common Core of Data (CCD) Public School Universe File, used to designate districts as inner-city or non-inner-city, were merged with data from the 1992 Office for Civil Rights Elementary and Secondary School Survey.

2 The Office of Civil Rights(OCR) Elementary and Secondary School Survey collects data on the characteristics of students enrolled in public schools across the country primarily to monitor compliance with civil rights laws. From one portion of the survey, data from public school districts and the schools within those districts are used to generate State and national estimates of the number of students identified as having speech impairments, visual impairments, specific learning disabilities, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance, hearing impairments, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, deaf-blindness, and multiple disabilities. Other student characteristics, such as ethnicity, gender, and English language proficiency are also included in the file. The 1992 survey included approximately 4,700 districts representing 43,000 schools (NCES, 1994b).

3 The Common Core of Data(CCD) survey collects information on elementary and secondary public education in the U.S. Data are collected annually from the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. Outlying Areas. A total of 57 State-level educational agencies report information on staff and students for approximately 85,000 public schools and about 15,400 local educational agencies. Information about revenues and expenditures is also collected at the State level (NCES, 1994a).

4 The NLTS, which began in 1987, was a 5-year national longitudinal study of secondary special education students to determine how they fare in terms of education, employment, and independent living. NLTS involved a nationally representative sample of more than 8,000 secondary-age youth with disabilities (NCES, 1994a). NLTS used codes for urban, suburban, and rural districts generated by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Consequently, the schools classified as urban in this data set may include urban fringe areas as well as inner cities, which makes them different from inner-city schools in OCR/CCD.

5 Data from OCR on race/ethnicity by disability are only collected for the following disability categories: mental retardation, learning disability, speech impairments, and serious emotional disturbance.
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[Chapter 4] [Table of Contents] [Factors Associated with the Provision of Special Education to Students with Disabilities in Inner Cities]