While parental participation in general education has been thoroughly studied in mainstream sociology as a possible mediator of inequality, there is surprising little sociological or legal research on parental participation in special education. It is only in special education that parents are legally mandated to participate in their children’s education; indeed, it is a hallmark of the special education legislation, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). Given large numbers of children served under the IDEA, the social construction of disability, and limits of parental participation’s effects on children’s educational opportunities and educational attainment, parental participation in special education deserves a hard look by sociologists and legal scholars alike.

This dissertation features three papers examining race, parenting, and special education. The first chapter, a version of which is published in The Modern American, is an essay that challenges the parental participation mandate in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). There I argue that black middle class parents in predominately white communities are disadvantaged in the parental advocacy process due to their relatively low status in the community. I show how black middle class parents in predominately white communities have restricted access to key capitals – economic, social, and cultural – specific to that community that are necessary for effective advocacy.

The second chapter is an analysis of the Procedural Safeguards Notice, a document that explains to parents their rights under IDEA. The Procedural Safeguards Notice, a document that every parent who is involved with special education receives at least once per year, provides a unique means through which to understand the social world of special education. It provides the rules and boundaries that dictate how parents and professionals are to behave in service of educating the child. There I argue, using Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power, that even while IDEA gives parents the right to participate, the advocacy process functions to reinforce the status quo and places the blame for a child not receiving the free appropriate public education guaranteed in IDEA squarely at the feet of their parents. This chapter challenges traditional common-sense notions of the equitable value of democratic participation as enforced by the State.

Together, these two chapters show how legally mandated parental participation in special education could serve to legitimate inequality. The process of participation is designed to benefit those parents with an abundance of sociological capitals to the detriment of those parents that lack such capital. Furthermore, if a school district child fails to provide a child with the free appropriate public education to which she is entitled, the blame is placed at the feet of the parents for not being effective advocates. Therefore, the first two chapters challenge parental participation in education as an unqualified good, and suggest that democratic participation is not a panacea for inequality.

The third paper looks closely at the socialization processes of parents of children who face low status expectations and stigma. There, I show how black middle class parents living in predominately white communities share socialization practices with white middle class mothers of children with disabilities due to their common concern with preparing their children for a society that devalues some parts of their identity. The third chapter complements the first two by drawing parallels between the parenting practices of children with disabilities and black children to build a conceptual bridge between these two maligned populations.