New York City Council grills top education department officials on special education

City councillors pressed education department officials Monday on shortcomings in the city’s special education system: thousands of students going without mandated services, shortages of seats for pre-K students with disabilities, and difficulties helping parents who don’t speak English navigate the system.

Mark Treyger, who chairs the council’s education committee, used some of those problems as a backdrop to question the way special education is supervised, criticizing schools Chancellor Richard Carranza’s decision to eliminate a deputy chancellor position directly in charge of special education.

“What once was a cabinet-level position with its own independent voice is now subsumed into another division,” Treyger said in his opening remarks, arguing the department should appoint a “czar” to oversee students with disabilities.

Soon after taking office, Carranza moved special education under a new chief academic officer position, with a portfolio that includes multiple divisions that were previously lead by individual deputies who reported directly to the chancellor.

During a heated exchange with Treyger, Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the previous deputy chancellor for special education who was effectively demoted, defended the reorganization. “Whatever title I possess,” she said, the new organizational structure “ensures that the needs of our students are met.”

Monday’s hearing, which stretched roughly six hours, touched on several interlocking problems affecting the city’s 224,000 students with disabilities, and included discussion of several new bills that would require the department to release more data on how well students with disabilities are being served. (Just days in advance of the hearing, officials announced plans to replace its expensive special education data system, known as SESIS, which has frustrated educators and parents for years.)

Here are some of the hearing’s highlights:

Officials acknowledge hundreds of pre-K students don’t have seats

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made universal free kindergarten a signature pillar of his education agenda. But many pre-K students with disabilities are served by a sprawling network of private providers that have struggled to keep their doors open, leaving many students without placements.

On Monday, Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack put a number to the problem: Roughly 300 pre-K students with disabilities don’t have a seat, he said, noting the number fluctuates regularly. Still, it wasn’t clear whether that completely captured the problem’s scope; Treyger suggested the number could be twice as large, based on advocates’ estimates.

“There are several hundred families that we’re working with,” Wallack said.

Having trouble getting special education services? Try 311

Unlike most City Council education hearings, Monday’s began with testimonials from parents, who offered grim accounts of how they struggled to navigate the special education system or were denied services that resulted in months of lost instruction.

At one point, Treyger asked department officials what parents should do if they’re frustrated with their school’s response. “If there isn’t someone they can go to at the school level, at any point they can call 311,” said Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer.

After the hearing, a department spokeswoman said educated-related questions are referred to “a DOE managed call center” staffed by 22 full-time and 9 part-time department employees.

Department officials give transparency bills a lukewarm reception

In advance of Monday’s hearing, a group of city lawmakers introduced a series of bills that would require the education department release more granular data about how well students with disabilities are being served.

In one of the biggest changes, the department would have to say how well individual schools are doing in providing the services listed on students’ Individualized Learning Programs, or IEPs. But Chen pushed back on that idea, saying it would be “misleading due to the much smaller numbers of students across programs in schools.”