NYC vows to address special education failures detailed in state review. But will their reforms go far enough?

In the wake of a scathing state report that found failures at virtually every level of New York City’s special education system, city officials acknowledged some flaws and pledged to address them in a response released Tuesday.

The education department offered explanations for the systemic failures detailed in May’s state review, which found that initial evaluations for special education services are often delayed or don’t happen at all. Officials also promised a series of reforms to tackle other issues, including that mandated services go unmet and that the formal appeal process is overwhelmed with a surge in complaints, leaving students in limbo. 

In the response — which didn’t impress some advocates — the city said hundreds of new staff, including additional psychologists and lawyers, would be hired to help conduct evaluations and to handle disputes about services. They also promised to beef up preschool special education programs.

The city education department “is fully committed to the action steps and timelines outlined in our [response],” schools Chancellor Richard Carranza wrote in a letter to the state education commissioner, “and we are focused on working toward full compliance in every area.”

Whether those reforms result in significant changes on the ground will have enormous consequences: There are more than 224,000 students with disabilities in the city’s public schools, a population that alone would rank among the nation’s 10 largest school systems and whose students face significantly worse academic outcomes than their peers. Nearly a quarter of students with disabilities don’t receive all of their required services, with thousands of students not receiving any mandated services whatsoever, according to city data.

“These children only have one shot at education; whether we get it right or wrong today impacts their life chances,” said Randi Levine, the policy director at Advocates for Children, an organization that works with special needs families. The state’s initial report, known as a “Compliance Assurance Plan,” noted that the city had been violating federal law governing students with disabilities for the past 13 years and that previous efforts to reform the system had “not resulted in the systemic change necessary.”

[Related: 7 and out of school since 2017: How Jazmiah slipped through the cracks of NYC’s special ed system]

In their response, city officials offered a variety of reasons as part of a “root cause analysis” of why they’re falling short. Officials said evaluations aren’t always conducted on time in part due to a lack of staff, with psychologists managing caseloads of more than 100 students. Officials described shortages of special education teachers, dysfunctional data systems that make it hard to tell if students are receiving services, and closures of community-based special education preschools that have left some of the city’s youngest students without a school placement.

But advocates questioned whether the city’s proposed solutions will make a significant dent. 

The city has struggled to find a seat for every preschool student with a disability who needs one, owing in part to stagnating state funding for private community-based providers, some of which have closed in recent years. 

And while the city is proposing to add 200 new preschool seats for those students next year, in addition to a few hundred that were already added, Levine said it will not close the gap entirely. “The [education department] is opening thousands of new 3-K seats, so we know they have the ability to open a preschool special education class seat for every child who needs one,” Levine said, “and it’s not acceptable that they’re not doing that.”

[Related: New York City promised free preschool to every family, so why do some students with disabilities struggle to find seats?]

Some of the education department’s goals struck advocates as unambitious. In one example the state report found that just 68% of evaluations for preschool special education services happened on time. The education department’s new goal only pledges to boost that rate by 5%.

Advocates also said they were underwhelmed by the city’s plans to address problems with the city’s impartial hearing offices, the system that allows parents to challenge the city if they believe their child is not getting the correct services or school placement. A series of systemic problems, including payment issues for hearing officers, too few hearing rooms, and staffing shortages have left the process “vulnerable to imminent failure” one report found. In recent years, the number of complaints filed has jumped over 50%.

In the meantime, students often go months or over a year without services their entitled to as the system struggles to process cases.

“The state [report]  addresses a number of those issues and unfortunately the DOE punted on most of them without giving a solution and in some instances saying there was no solution to be had,” said Rebecca Shore, the litigation director at Advocates for Children.

For their part, city officials said they would hire 52 new staffers dedicated to the hearing and settlement process, promised regular and prompt payments to hearing officers, and have asked the state to certify more of them, among a series of efforts to identify “specific points in the process that are challenging for families.” The city also noted that Chancellor Carranza toured the Impartial Hearing Office, which a separate state report said was cramped, unkempt, had poor temperature control, and housed teachers who had been reassigned due to disciplinary issues, among other problems. (Under the city’s plan, some improvements have been made to the space and reassigned teachers have been removed.)

The city’s response to the state report was formally due on June 3, but state and city officials did not release it in response to a public records request for more than a month.

State education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the department is reviewing the city’s responses, which “do not represent final actions.” She said the state will offer feedback, but did not immediately offer a timeline.

Danielle Filson, a city education department spokeswoman, emphasized investments the city has made to boost special education services in recent years.

“We have added 4,300 more special education staff over the course of the administration, tripled the number of students with IEPs enrolled in 3-K and Pre-K, and expanded programs for bilingual students, students with autism, and preschooler,” she said in a statement.

“The chancellor has communicated a clear sense of urgency, and we will continue to collaborate closely with the state to ensure all children receive the special education programs and services they need.”

You can read the city’s full responses to the state here.