Kim Sweet

Special education advocates are planning to criticize the Department of Education’s choice of official to spearhead a comprehensive review of special education in the city schools.

Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York (where I used to work when I wrote for Insideschools), told me this morning that she’s worried about what the review could mean for special education services, especially in light of the current economic conditions.

One major concern is that Garth Harries, who has been appointed to conduct the review, doesn’t have experience in special education. “The special education system is a complex system that to address a diverse and complicated set of student needs,” Sweet told me. “Garth Harries unfortunately does not have the experience to make decisions about it in an intelligent and sensitive way.”

She said the ARISE Coalition, which advocates for children with special needs, will speak out against Harries’ appointment.

Another issue, Sweet said, is that given the current budget shortfall, the department might be taking a hard look at special education simply to save money.“The Department of Education under Klein and Bloomberg has not paid sufficient attention to special education and the importance of that system,” Sweet said. “My fear is that this new effort is not at all about improving the system but merely about cutting costs.”

(Harries told me yesterday that this is not the case.)

Sweet said she has similar concerns about changes brewing at the state level. A state commission to figure out how to narrow the gap between how much the state spends on schools and how much it earns from property taxes suggested cutting education costs by weakening some special education rules. The State Education Department rejected some of the commission’s suggestions but then suggested changes of its own, she said. Some of those proposed changes, such as to reduce the amount of time families have to lodge complaints about special education services, are ones the state “has been pushing for years” but which could hurt children, she said.

“There is a danger that regulators will use this budget crisis to get rid of programs that they don’t like,” Sweet said. “We’ll have to make sure that the programs that are slated for elimination are in fact not serving kids.”

And she said that while special education can be a tempting target for budget cuts, it might not yield as much savings as officials hope. “The special education system is an expensive system,” Sweet said. “The problem is, it’s expensive for a reason: Because it’s serving kids who by definition need lots of help.”