Disabled Students of Color Are Facing Disparate Treatment in Chicago Public School

By Alanna Goldstein


Given the standard policy to segregate school classrooms by ability, disabled students of color in Chicago public schools are not receiving equal access to public education. Thus, recommendations to improve the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in the context of racial segregation in the Chicago public school district are necessary. Overall, public schools in Chicago have adopted distinct school policies that have made efforts to improve education for disabled students of color. Conducting a Racial Equity Impact Assessment (REIA) is necessary before Chicago School District 299 adopts new policies that affect disabled students of color.

In America’s public education system, all students are guaranteed access to public education. IDEA has been instrumental in helping to improve educational standards for disabled students. However, research has shown an over-representation of students of color in public school special education programs. The Civil Rights Data Collection has confirmed that Chicago public schools have a significant student population of disabled students of color (Civil Rights Data Collection 2015). 

To look at whether minority students were treated differently than white students in special education programs in the Chicago Public School District, I obtained data on 3,390 programs in 642 schools. First, I determined for each program whether the majority of the students in each program were minorities (Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Black, and Two or More Races). Then, I compared these “minority” programs with programs in which the majority of students were white. I then determined the number of minority programs in which students spent less than 40 percent of time in the regular classroom to white programs. This was calculated at three levels: less than 25 percent of students, between 25 and 50 percent of students, and more than 50 percent of students.

As Table 1 shows:

  • Very few white program participants spent more than 40 percent of their time outside of the regular classroom. 
  • Minority disabled students are more likely to spend more time out of the regular classroom. 12.5 percent of minority programs, compared with less than 1 percent of white programs, had between 25 percent and 50 percent of their students spend the most time out of the regular classroom. 
  • The same disparity exists for the programs in which over 50 percent of students spent the most time out of the regular classroom: virtually all of the programs in this category are minority programs. 
Table 1: Minority vs. White Programs Who Spend Less than 40% of Time in Classroom
Less than 25%Between 25% and 50%Over 50%

Having a disproportionate number of students of color in special education programs presents a pressing problem. Table 1 demonstrates that disabled students of color receive proportionally less time spent in the regular classroom as compared to disabled white students. Spending time in the regular classroom has been linked to increased student success (McGovern 2015). Thus, the Chicago Public School system must work to address the systemic inequality disabled students of color face in the classroom.

Chicago, as the third-largest public school district in America, presents a unique challenge. Many of the public schools directly serve a student population with a majority of students of color (City of Chicago 2020). This means it is critical to look at the intersection of race and disability in the Chicago public school district. Taking an intersectional lens allows for an analysis that understands the unique experiences of those with overlapping identities of race and disability in the context of disabled students of color.


Chicago public schools have a variety of school policies that directly impact disabled students of color. School policies will be evaluated as successful if they can address the racial harms by preventing racial segregation of Chicago public schools by ability.

The recent recommendation for a New Education of Students with Disability Policy in the Chicago Public Schools provides an opportunity to improve education for disabled students of color (Chicago Board of Education 2019). Chicago Public Schools should adopt an REIA of any proposed policy changes that will impact disabled students of color (Lightfoot 2019). An REIA will identify which Chicago Public Schools have implemented successful policies that increase disabled students of color having equal access to quality public education.

An REIA is an approach to identifying how different racial and ethnic groups are impacted by proposed or existing systems. “The REIA can be a vital tool for preventing institutional racism and for identifying new options to remedy long-standing inequities… REIAs are used to reduce, eliminate and prevent racial discrimination and inequities. The persistence of deep racial disparities and divisions across society is evidence of institutional racism––the routine, often invisible and unintentional, production of inequitable social opportunities and outcomes. When racial equity is not consciously addressed, racial inequality is often unconsciously replicated.” (Keleher 2009). 

There are several important steps to conducting an REIA that Chicago Public Schools should follow:

  • Include students, families, teachers, and school administrators in the process. All should be empowered equally to contribute.
  • Collect quantitative and qualitative data on the outcomes of disabled students of color in Chicago Public Schools.
  • Determine the potential causes of existing inequalities for disabled students of color. 
  • Develop new approaches that can address these disparities. 
  • Sustainably implement new approaches and continuously engage stakeholders, evaluate changes, and report outcomes.

Other cities have found REIAs to be successful at improving racial inequalities in their public school districts. For example, in Minneapolis, they began using REIAs in 2008. The school board has since made REIAs mandatory as the community found REIAs help engage a diverse population and identify underrepresented issues (The Annie E. Casey Foundation 2016).  

Conducting an REIA to evaluate the Chicago Public School District in the context of disabled students of color is necessary. This will analyze the existing policies in place in the Chicago Public School District and find if policies correlate with the disparate treatment of disabled students of color. Future policy changes should undergo an REIA process before they are implemented.


If Chicago Public Schools continue to ignore the education of disabled students of color, this will have a detrimental effect on their education. Table 1 and Figure 1 demonstrate many disabled students of color are losing time spent in the regular class environment in Chicago Public      Schools. Research has also shown that disabled students of color face disproportionate rates of discipline in Chicago Public Schools (Civil Rights Data Collection 2015). By adopting REIA in all Chicago Public Schools for policies that affect disabled students of color, disabled students of color will have increased equal access to quality public education.


The Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Tools for Thought: Using Racial Equity Impact Assessments for Effective Policymaking,” 2016. https://www.aecf.org/resources/tools-for-thought-a-race-for-results-case-study/

Chicago Board of Education. “Education of Students with Disabilities Policy.” Chicago Public Schools Policy Handbook. December 11, 2019.

City of Chicago. “Chicago Public Schools – School Profile Information SY1819.” City of Chicago Data Portal. Last modified 2020. https://data.cityofchicago.org/Education/Chicago-Public-Schools-School-Profile-Information-/kh4r-387c/data

Civil Rights Data Collection. “Students with Disabilities, by Disability Categories (2009+).” City of Chicago School District 299. Last modified 2015. https://ocrdata.ed.gov/flex/Reports.aspx?type=school

Keleher, Terry. “Racial Equity Impact Assessment.” The Center for Racial Justice and Innovation. 2009. https://www.raceforward.org/sites/default/files/RacialJusticeImpactAssessment_v5.pdf

Lightfoot, Lori. “A Plan to Transform Chicago Public Schools.” January, 2019. https://lightfootforchicago.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2019_LEL_Education_Policy.pdf

McGovern, Megan. “Least Restrictive Environment: Fulfilling the Promises of IDEA.” Widener Law Review 21, no. 1 (2015). https://widenerlawreview.org/files/2015/02/10-McGovern-1.pdf