Measuring Equity

The city is paying for more students with disabilities to attend private school. But is that helping poor families?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio announces policy changes meant to make it easier for parents of children with special needs to secure city funds for private school tuition.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would make it easier for children with disabilities whose needs aren’t met in public school to have their private school tuition funded by the city, he said the policy shift would make the special education system more equitable.

Families were put through “a very difficult and often litigious process,” de Blasio said at a 2014 press conference announcing the new policy. He added that the city “needed a streamlined, parent-friendly, family-friendly, respectful approach that didn’t matter how good your lawyers were, or how much money you had to spend on lawyers.” He promised the city would scale back legal barriers that sometimes kept families from getting the city to pay for private placements.

That shift seems to have had a clear effect: As Chalkbeat reported in July, roughly 4,100 students with disabilities were funded by the city to attend private school last year, 42 percent more than in 2011. And fewer families had to fight lengthy battles for that funding: The city settled 49 percent more cases without going through a legal hearing than they did in 2011.

While some advocates see these as positive changes, exactly what kinds of families have benefitted is an open question — one that city officials say their data systems don’t allow them to answer.

In June, Chalkbeat filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking for demographic breakdowns — including socioeconomic status — of students with disabilities whose private school tuition is paid for by the city. The request was an attempt to assess whether the policy was having the effect on equal access that de Blasio promised.

Nearly four months later, after repeated delays, the city has denied that request. The city said it does not collect the socioeconomic status or race of students in the database where it tracks tuition reimbursements.

The state’s open-records law “does not obligate the DOE to match data across computer storage systems,” wrote Joseph Baranello, the education department’s records access officer, in a letter. Baranello noted the city also searched for “previously created compilations of data,” but could not find any.

Baranello’s explanation is based on the state’s open-records law, which requires the city to disclose only records that it already keeps. But it does raise questions about how the city can tell if the policy is having its desired effect without clear data on the question.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the new policy has made it easier for families of students with disabilities to get appropriate services.

“Several offices across the DOE work closely to process these claims,” she wrote, “and we are always looking for ways to improve our tracking systems.”

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, expressed some skepticism about the department’s response to the records request. “You would think the department would want to demonstrate the effects of the policy change,” he said. “One is always suspicious that an agency refuses what seems to be a reasonable request because they won’t like the interpretation of the records.”

Some advocates said that even if the city can’t prove that the policy is serving more low-income families, those it is serving are often having an easier time.

Rebecca Shore, who represents low-income families as litigation director at Advocates for Children, said the administration’s shift has given parents of children with disabilities a more straightforward path to private school by reducing the amount of time and money they have to commit to legal battles.

“The reality is the policy is helping those low-income parents,” she said. “Does that mean it’s equally dispersed? No.”

model of inclusion

New York City is placing students with disabilities in mainstream classes. But do they actually feel included?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Terell Richards languished at the public middle school in Queens for students with severe disabilities that he attended a few years ago.

It wasn’t just that he found the work so easy he sometimes fell asleep in the back of the classroom, his sister, Kya, said. It was also that he felt so out of place he would sometimes dissolve into tears.

“Just crying and saying how much he just felt like he was in the wrong place and completely lost,” said Kya, who helped her brother, now 19 years old, switch to a private school for students with special needs.

Now, New York City — and districts across the country — have started sending more students like Terell into classrooms alongside their non-disabled peers. But while some research has shown students with disabilities can perform better in mixed-ability settings, a crucial concern has been whether the new environment makes students with disabilities actually feel less isolated and out-of-place.

A new first-of-its-kind study based on surveys of more than 250,000 New York City middle-school students between 2007 and 2012 tries to answer that question.

The study comes with some important caveats: The surveys are conducted annually by the education department, meaning they weren’t written by the study’s authors nor did they oversee how they were administered. Also, the survey period ended just as the city was beginning its major push to move most students with disabilities out of separate classrooms.

It finds that middle-school students with disabilities tend to feel welcomed in schools with non-disabled peers, though their experiences vary by their type of disability. But, more surprisingly, special-needs students in separate classes don’t feel more excluded.

The study, which was funded by the Spencer Foundation, is set to appear in the peer-reviewed journal, Educational Researcher. Here are three big takeaways:

Students with disabilities generally feel included in mainstream schools.

The study tracks whether students feel included at over 500 traditional schools by looking at how students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers responded to five questions from the city’s annual survey: whether students feel welcome at school, whether students with disabilities are included in school activities, if teachers know students’ names, whether students are bullied, and whether they see harassment.

Generally, students with disabilities reported slightly higher levels of inclusion in school activities than non-disabled students, and feel only marginally less welcomed — though they also reported slightly higher levels of bullying and harassment.

About 60 percent of students with special needs either agreed or strongly agreed that students with disabilities are included in all school activities, about two percentage points higher than non-disabled students. A slightly smaller share of special needs students felt welcomed at school compared to students without disabilities — though 92 percent said they felt welcomed. (The patterns are relatively consistent even when controlling for differences in student characteristics like gender, race, or socioeconomic status.)

Advocates said they were both surprised and encouraged by those findings.

“We do worry that in the hands of an unskilled teacher that kids will not necessarily feel welcomed and they’ll still be separated out and made to feel different” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children. “It’s pretty exciting to me to see that’s not necessarily true.”

Feelings of inclusion vary widely by disability type.

Although students with disabilities generally reported feeling about as included and welcomed as their peers, there are significant differences based on the type of disability a student has.

Those who were classified as having an “emotional disturbance” — often students who have significant behavioral problems — felt among the least included. They were about 4 percentage points less likely to report feeling welcome or included, compared to non-disabled students, and were also more likely to report harassment than students in any other disability category.

“The emotional disturbance kids are the ones who stand out in their classrooms,” said Leanna Stiefel, the study’s lead author and an economics professor at New York University, adding that they may feel less included because their disabilities are more difficult to hide.

But students with “low-incidence” disabilities such as multiple handicaps, autism, or intellectual disabilities reported more positive feelings than any other group. They were about 10 percentage points more likely than non-disabled peers to report that their schools include students with disabilities, and were slightly more likely to report feeling welcomed.

Students who are segregated based on ability don’t necessarily feel excluded.

Surprisingly, it made little difference whether students with disabilities were in “self-contained” classes — essentially classes comprised only of students with disabilities — or were in classrooms that included non-disabled peers: Both groups reported similar feelings of inclusion. (The findings don’t include students in District 75, a separate set of schools that are even less inclusive, since the schools themselves are only for students with disabilities.)

Moroff, the special education advocate, said the finding surprised her and noted it could reflect that students in more segregated settings aren’t necessarily aware of more inclusive models.

“It’s very possible there that there’s a level of interaction they’re not having,” Moroff said, “that they don’t even expect to be taking place.”

NEW DATA

To help students with physical disabilities navigate a maze of barriers, NYC releases new reports on high school accessibility

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Midwood High School.

When Michelle Noris helped her son apply to public high schools, she knew the city’s directory would not be much use.

Since her son, Abraham, uses a wheelchair and the city’s official list of over 400 high schools contains little information about physical infrastructure, Noris knew she’d have to make phone calls and set up visits to find out whether cafeterias, auditoriums, and even front entrances could accommodate a wheelchair.

“I spent hours and hours on that,” said Noris, a former member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. “It felt like I shouldn’t have to do this.”

Now, after lobbying from Noris and other advocates, the city is starting to release more detailed information about how accommodating its high schools are for students with disabilities — an effort to reduce the burden on those students and their families to figure it out for themselves.

New online profiles indicate whether school bathrooms, gymnasiums, classrooms, libraries, hallways and other spaces are completely accessible on each floor, and if not, what barriers might be present.

They are meant to correct a major challenge for families seeking accessibility information about New York City’s high schools: 62 percent are deemed “partially accessible,” an ambiguous term that is supposed to mean students with disabilities can access “relevant programs,” but in practice gives little sense of the scope of accessibility issues. Just 13 percent of high school buildings are fully accessible, according to 2016 data.

A partially accessible school might have a ramp, but it’s connected to a service entrance designed to transport garbage rather than wheelchairs. A school could have an accessible bathroom, but it’s on the second floor. An auditorium might accommodate a wheelchair, but provide no access to the stage.

In recent months, the education department has posted on its website new “Building Accessibility Profiles” that offer such granular, crucial details — based on a 58-question survey conducted by department employees.

One Upper Manhattan school building, which houses New Design Middle School and two KIPP charter schools, earned one of the highest possible accessibility ratings. But its profile notes that the bathrooms might not be maneuverable; some stalls are missing grab bars; there is no braille signage throughout the building; and some of its hallway doors may be too heavy for students with limited upper body strength. (The reports do not differentiate between schools that share buildings, a concern among some advocates because students at each school may have different accessibility needs.)

For now, the profiles only exist for high school buildings in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, putting the city behind on its original schedule to have every high school profile available in time for this year’s application season. City officials said they plan to complete profiles for all partially accessible high schools by January, but could not offer a timeline for middle or elementary schools. (The decision to release more high school accessibility data comes almost two years after a scathing U.S. Department of Justice investigation revealed “inexcusable” accessibility problems in elementary schools.)

Experts largely praised the city for beginning to make the high school choice process less onerous for students with disabilities by offering them more information about physical accessibility.

But some also pointed out that the information is difficult to find. The city’s official high school directory only says whether schools are “accessible” or “not accessible,” a potentially misleading indicator given that most schools fall somewhere in between. And the city’s “School Finder” site, essentially a digital version of the directory, does not link to the new accessibility data, though a spokesman said that information will be included in future updates.

“This is all really, really valuable information,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at Advocates for Children. “But if families don’t have a way of getting to it easily, it doesn’t do them a whole lot of good.”

The easiest way to get to the information is on the city’s Office of Space Planning website, which lists each school’s accessibility profile.

Still, there are significant upsides to the new data — and not just for parents.

More detailed information about building infrastructure could help the city better-allocate capital funding to schools that might only need modest improvements to become significantly more accessible, Moroff said. The city’s current five-year capital plan includes $100 million for such improvements.

“We work diligently with families and school communities to ensure every student has a seat at a school that meets their accessibility needs,” said education department spokesman Michael Aciman.

While Noris, the parent and disability advocate, said she would have loved the additional information when she was searching for a high school for her son, she’s glad her advocacy paid off. She used to carry around mock surveys to show city officials what kinds of information would have helped her, and even used the surveys to rate a few schools, partly to show that useful information about buildings could be extracted in under an hour.

So when Noris saw the data appear on the city’s website, she couldn’t help but feel like she played a role.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, they listened to me,’” she said. “I was very pleased.”