A preschool classroom in West Hartford.

A middle school student with ADHD spent nearly an entire school year with, “no human there to service” him, according to a complaint filed against the Bridgeport school system. This is a reality that no student should have to face. Special education programs in Connecticut are under-resourced, and because of the racially and ethnically imbalanced demographics of students in these classes, it is predominantly students of color who endure this under-resourced education. In order to improve equity for students in special education, Connecticut schools should provide more resources and support for special education programs.

Historically, students of color have been overrepresented in these under-resourced special education classes compared to white students, perpetuating racial and ethnic inequity within schools, and widening the opportunity gap. The opportunity gap is produced by systemic racial and ethnic disparities in the classroom, which ultimately affect students’ lives beyond education.

Within Connecticut public schools, there is clear racial and ethnic disproportionality in the demographics of students who are in special education classes. In the Hartford Public School District, 28.5% of students receiving services are Black, 63.6% of these students are Hispanic, and 5.5% of these students are white. Compared to the overall population of the District, 29.7% of students are Black, 52.8% of students are Hispanic, and 10.6% of students are white. This data displays an overrepresentation of Hispanic students and an underrepresentation of white students in special education.

Connecticut does not provide sufficient support to students with disabilities. For example, in Bridgeport, parents called on the state to eradicate systemic problems in special education. In the state’s second-largest school district, the number of students in special education programs has recently risen while the number of special education educators has remained constant. In a March 2021 CT Mirror article, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas and Adria Watson reported that “the school district has a shortage of 19 special education certified staff.”

One could argue that the lack of teachers in special education programs could be a direct result of COVID-19. Due to the pandemic, special education teachers may be getting burnt out, getting sick more often, and dealing with issues in their personal life. Despite these additional challenges, understaffed special education programs existed prior to the pandemic.

Special education programs also lack proper implicit bias training for educators regarding their understanding of students’ racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Educators operating in the programs hold problematic biases of students of color, thus students are disproportionately placed into under-resourced special education programs. Their beliefs hinder students’ long-term achievements.

Maggie O’Neil and Sophia Jones

Students in special education programs should have the opportunity to achieve the same levels of success as students who are not in the programs. A recent report which examined special education programs across Connecticut found that there is a significant “achievement gap” and difference in “the quality of education” between special education and non-special education programs.

Despite these unfortunate realities, a hopeful example of equitable education is present in Norwalk. The city has begun to develop its “Future Ready for All” plan to better prepare students for their careers beyond school by addressing classroom inequities. As this plan seeks to address racial inequities in the classroom, it is possible that the plan will reach students of color who continue to be disproportionately placed into under-resourced special education programs. If more Connecticut public schools adopt plans similar to this, a greater margin of students will encounter success.

Connecticut must be more aware of how its under-resourced special education programs affect students of color. In order to combat educational inequity, those in power must allocate more resources to special education programs. This would simultaneously begin to close the opportunity gap.

It is unacceptable for students with disabilities to go so long without support from their schools. Should this trend persist in Connecticut schools, students with disabilities — especially students of color — will continue to be denied opportunities. Something must be done within Connecticut to develop equitable education for all students.

Maggie O’Neil is a sophomore at Trinity College from Lexington, Mass. She is currently majoring in Educational Studies. Sophia Jones is a sophomore at Trinity College from Northern California. She plans to major in Educational Studies with a minor in Spanish.