In 2010, the New York City Department of Education (“DOE”) implemented special education reforms, which included a multi-phase overhaul of the City’s special education programs. The DOE’s chief concerns appeared to be increasing graduation rates for special education students and the proportion of the special education population served in general education settings, as opposed to specialized, segregated special education environments. This was a major undertaking considering, according to DOE-provided statistics, that City schools serve an estimated 160,000 special education students, only about 31% of those students with identified special needs graduate from high school and only 4% of students in self-contained special education classrooms graduate from high school.
When these reforms began in 2010, the 260 schools selected to participate in Phase One were charged with implementing many sweeping changes, but because the reforms initiated funding on a per capita, rather than whole-classroom, basis, most schools realized no significant uptick in funding to implement the required changes.
This fall, the DOE implemented the reforms Citywide. However, several studies conducted during Phase One have yielded disappointing results. Most educators involved in the process have acknowledged difficulty changing the culture of schools to the point where there are sufficient staff with the knowledge and desire to effect the reforms’ systematic changes. Furthermore, contracts with service providers (such as psychologists and speech-language pathologists) are geared to the old system, when special needs students were segregated into a handful of schools; now that special needs students are attending their neighborhood schools, many find service providers too geographically remote to obtain effective, consistent services. And, as Randi Levine, an attorney at Advocates for Children of the City of New York, expressed in testimony before the New York City Council in June, “ambitious reforms require significant planning, capacity building and community buy-in. While the DOE has met with us on a regular basis and has implemented many of our ideas, we are distraught that the DOE has not answered some basic questions that we have been asking for more than a year.” Specifically, says Levine, the DOE has not set forth a consistent, thoughtful plan for a presumably common scenario: when a student’s zoned school does not offer the specific type of classroom or services required by that student’s IEP. According to another recent article, Advocates for Children has fielded more than 40 calls from parents of special needs kindergarteners whose zoned schools have been unable to provide these students with the classroom type they require. Many of these situations have been remedied by the DOE; however, the 40 families that contacted Advocates for Children do not represent the full universe of children who are not well served under the reforms, only those whose parents have spoken out on their behalf.
In a recent article in the New York Daily News, educators and their union representatives expressed concern that students enrolled in Phase One programs were actually faring worse on standardized tests than students remaining in self-contained special education classes. Even though a study conducted by the DOE did not show the same disparity, the DOE study did show that students in Phase One did not demonstrate any improvement over non-Phase One students. This did not, however, stop the DOE from rolling out the reforms Citywide this past September, nor did it cause the DOE to substantially tweak the program.
It is clear that parents and advocates should not jump to conclusions in the face of this data. Two years is simply not long enough to accurately assess the long-term potential of the DOE’s reforms. However, it is troubling that the DOE has not been forthcoming with data supporting its assertions that special needs students are faring better under the reforms than in traditional, self-contained classrooms.
So what can be done? Certainly, at a minimum, DOE needs to provide comprehensive training to classroom teachers, administrators and support staff charged with implementing these reforms. The DOE also needs to enforce a policy of transparency relating to educational data concerning the efficacy of the reforms, and how this data is being used to improve educational outcomes. However, it is of the utmost importance that New York City parents of special needs students remain engaged and informed so that they can become successful advocates for their children. While the DOE is ironing out the wrinkles, it is imperative that children not be left behind, and there are resources available to parents, including legal services such as those provided by this firm, to ensure that the transition to the educational environment envisioned under these reforms is a smooth and productive one for all students.