A federal judge has ruled that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos illegally delayed an Obama-era rule that required states to address racial disparities in special education programs.

In a decision on Thursday, Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia called the Education Department’s delay of the special education rule “arbitrary and capricious.” The rule, drafted under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, would require states to identify districts with “significant disproportionality” in the number of minority students channeled into special education services, segregated in restrictive classroom settings or disciplined.

The rule, passed in the final weeks of the Obama administration, required districts to examine policies and practices that contributed to the disparities and fund remedies.

The judge’s ruling vacates Ms. DeVos’s decision to put off the regulation by two years. Instead it will take effect immediately. Leaders in the Education Department said last summer that they needed time to study the rule’s potential consequences because they were concerned that it could promote unconstitutional “racial quotas.”

Civil rights groups hailed the ruling as a victory over one of the most significant policy moves that Ms. DeVos has made to date. While the department has rescinded nonbinding guidance documents, which championed Obama-era practices for addressing racial bias, the special education rule is binding, and states had been preparing to enforce it for more than a year.

Denise Marshall, executive director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, an advocacy organization that sued the department over the delay last year, said the decision, “assures states will be required to help their districts who have historically discriminated against children,” by offering them services rather than suspensions.

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