Last July, the New York City Department of Education released an in-house memo of recommendations to improve services to students with disabilities.  So, in the midst of an election campaign and with little previous administration attention paid to this population, it seems fair to ask, “Hey, Mike!  Why special ed? Why now?”  Does this new initiative suggest commitment to change or is it a political document meant to convey progress rather than institutional inertia?

The DOE memo, if implemented, would improve instruction, graduation, and career possibilities for the city’s approximately 130,000 students with IEPs, the “individualized education programs” that federal law mandates for students with disabilities.  But DOE commitment to these recommendations is uncertain since the report reads less like a trusted expert’s focused analysis and more like an aide’s synthesis of progressive positions with an eye to mayoral politics.

The progressive perspective is at least in part represented by “Educate! Include! Respect!,” an April 2009 report by the ARISE Coalition, a broad coalition of parents, educators, and advocates brought together by Advocates for Children of New York.  I am a member of ARISE but the opinions expressed here are my own.  ARISE calls for 15 specific “action items,” citing recommendations of many other recent reports.  Two of these predecessor works are especially notable since they, like the DOE memo, were commissioned by Chancellor Klein: a 2005 “Comprehensive Management Review and Evaluation” by Thomas Hehir and a 2008 report by the Council of Great City Schools.  The CGCS study specifically addressed issues in District 75, the “Citywide Special Education” district that serves students with the most serious handicaps.  So far, however, none of these studies seem have gained traction with the Mayor or Chancellor, whose leadership is vital if the long-standing problems of special education detailed by ARISE, Hehir, and CGCS are to be remedied.

While the above documents describe a series of possible reforms to address this poorly-served population, I deviate from their common wisdom in two important respects.  The first is the recommendation (and, so far, the only one implemented by the Chancellor) for a cabinet-level special education post.  The second is the continued existence of District 75.

The DOE memo states that both Hehir and CGCS recommend “a direct report to the Chancellor.”  While acknowledging arguments to the contrary, it arrives at the same conclusion which seems tacitly accepted by ARISE’s response to the memo.  This position is wrong as a general organizational strategy and, particularly, in the closed circle of current DOE decision-making.

Special education is a continuum within the broad spectrum of public school instruction.  This is not only promoted by federal requirements providing special needs students with mainstreaming opportunities in the “least restrictive environment” but by recognition that many students with disabilities spend only part of their day receiving special instruction, often in a mainstream class, and others receive only incidental special education services such as testing accommodations and related services (speech therapy, physical therapy, and the like) without ever being materially separated from their “gen. ed.” classmates.

To separate these and other students with and without IEPs from the responsibility of all top DOE managers is to continue the marginalization of these students and their parents.  This is particularly the case under Chancellor Klein who grants disproportionate power to a few intimates.  In that environment, a Deputy Chancellor-level advocate for Special Education and English Language Learners (hardly a felicitous combination except in the mind of someone with but superficial knowledge of either) is likely to be political window dressing rather than a real driver of institutional change.

Similarly expedient is the reports’ uniform recommendation to maintain District 75.  Dismantling the District is the third rail of special education politics since, though long a segregated instructional mediocrity, parents fear disaster if their severely handicapped children become the responsibility of larger organizational structures.  And those structures – non-District 75 schools, community school districts, and the Department as a whole – have historically shunned responsibility for these students, by definition those most difficult to educate.

But the time has come to break with this obvious failure and the insidious institutional culture that breeds it.  By every measure, District 75 lags not just because its students have special needs but because it has been treated as an educational backwater, rife with income and racial bias.  Wealthier parents, usually White, frequently opt out of District 75 schools through their ability to secure private placements for their children, often at public expense.  Notable is the following chart, adapted from the CGCS study at p. 72, showing widespread racial disparities, particularly the disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic students labeled with the highly subjective designation “emotionally disturbed” (CGCS does not break down its data for Asian, Native American, or Pacific Islander students):picture-16

These students are the least likely to graduate, are subject to high rates of suspension despite legal protections, and are the most likely to drop out.  Even their egregiously low levels of performance are probably inflated by DOE graduation data that has incorrectly counted so-called IEP diplomas as exit credentials and, as detailed by the Public Advocate, the failure to count as drop outs large numbers of disabled students who prematurely leave school.

While report after report emphasizes District 75’s poor record of performance and the failure of the present administration to bring it into the mainstream of reform efforts, each succumbs to the politically popular notion that District 75 should remain apart.  But as most clearly and prominently noted by the CGCS report, the only one which specifically studied that District and its students’ needs, the DOE must “reform and integrate the currently bifurcated system of services for students with disabilities into a universal and seamless design.”  Amen to that.  Parents need to be reassured that inclusion in the mainstream structure will strengthen, not diminish, their children’s instructional and career futures.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the ills of special education in New York’s public schools.  In addition to chronic problems of timely, appropriate evaluation and placement and below-par services, reports are surfacing of changed IEPs in small schools, failure to hire required related service providers under the current job freeze, the absence of students with disabilities in charter schools, inadequate funding under the DOE’s budget formula, and the instructional vacuity of many Collaborative Team Teaching classrooms.  These and other issues require urgent scrutiny and resolution by the administration.  Educators, advocates, and technocrats have spent years exploring the subject.  Substantive action, not electoral posturing, is now required.