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.”

legal showdown

Lawsuit targets New York City program that strands poor students without required special ed services

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Public Advocate Letitia James announced a report earlier this month criticizing the city's special education voucher program.

A program that makes New York City parents responsible for finding their own special education services — but that often leaves them with no services at all — is under legal attack.

The class action lawsuit, filed Thursday in a federal district court, aims to reform the city’s process for ensuring that students with disabilities receive “related services” — which include physical therapy, certain medical services and counseling, among other therapies.

When the city’s education department is unable to offer those services itself, or through a contractor, parents are given a voucher that can be used to pay an outside provider. But that system puts the onus on families to find providers, and about half of the 9,164 vouchers issued during the 2015-16 school year went unused, according to a report issued earlier this month by the public advocate’s office.

The lawsuit centers on the Bronx, where the problem is particularly acute. In District 8, which includes Hunts Point, Throgs Neck and Soundview, 91 percent of the 129 vouchers issued last school year went unused — the highest rate anywhere in the city.

The city’s public advocate found that families face a number of barriers to using the vouchers: They often struggle to find providers in their neighborhoods, have difficulty arranging for transportation and getting reimbursed to send their children elsewhere, or simply can’t find providers who are responsive.

In part because of those challenges, an attorney who helped bring the lawsuit said the city can’t simply offer a voucher to fulfil its obligation to provide special education services.

“The DOE has to ensure that students actually get [services]” said Seth Packrone, a lawyer at Disability Rights Advocates, which contributed to the public advocate’s report. “They can’t just issue a voucher and then step away.”

The goal of the litigation is to force the education department to come up with a plan to ensure that students in the Bronx receive the services they have been guaranteed, Packrone said. It is not yet clear what that plan could entail or how it could affect other neighborhoods, which also have large numbers of unused vouchers.

The complaint says the city’s voucher program violates multiple federal laws that guarantee students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education. The plaintiffs in the case are two Bronx students and Bronx Independent Living Services, a nonprofit that works with students who have disabilities.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement: “We are dedicated to meeting the needs of students with disabilities and in the small percentage of cases when we issue a related service authorization, we work with families to connect them with an appropriate provider in their area.”

She referred questions about the lawsuit to a law department spokesman, who said the city is reviewing the complaint.

voucher void

Report: Special education voucher program leaves some of New York City’s poorest families without services

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Gloria Alfinez with her son, a rising fourth-grader with special needs, who she says did not receive appropriate services.

Thousands of students with special needs in New York City are not receiving required services due to a system that forces families to find certain therapists on their own if their schools are unable to provide them.

That’s according to a report released Wednesday by the city’s public advocate, Letitia James, who investigated the city’s system for providing what are called “related services” — which include physical therapy, certain medical services and counseling, among other therapies.

When the city’s education department is unable to offer those services itself, or through a contractor, parents are given a voucher that can be used to pay an outside provider. But that system puts the onus on families to find providers, and about half of the 9,164 vouchers issued during the 2015-16 school year went unused, according to figures provided by the public advocate’s office.

“The burden should not shift from the Department of Education to parents,” James said at a press conference. “The process itself is in violation of the law.”

Even as the city has made reforms to its special education system, the report offers another window into a system that often falls short. The city’s own statistics showed that during the same year, just 59 percent of students with special needs received the full range of services they were entitled to, and thousands received no services at all.

The voucher system disadvantages poorer neighborhoods, the report finds, especially those in the far corners of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. In the Bronx’s District 8, for instance, 91 percent of the 129 vouchers issued in the 2015-16 school year went unused — the highest rate anywhere in the city. In Queens’s District 27, 79 percent of vouchers went unused. Brooklyn’s District 14, covering Williamsburg and Greenpoint, had the lowest rate of unused vouchers, but nearly a quarter still went unused.

Based on interviews with families and providers themselves, the report attributes the large share of unused vouchers to a series of interlocking barriers: Families often struggle to find providers in their neighborhoods, have difficulty arranging for transportation and getting reimbursed to send their children elsewhere, or simply can’t find providers who are responsive.

One parent, Yamile Henry, said through an interpreter that she wasn’t even aware she might need to take her son outside the school to get key services, and that letters were sent home in English (she speaks Spanish). “I cannot take my son to services because I work,” she said. “I still don’t know if my son is receiving them.”

But even parents who do try to arrange outside help often face roadblocks.

The public advocate’s office called scores of providers that the education department recommends to parents in the Bronx, and found the vast majority did not have any availability. Of the providers contacted, James said, just six were available and willing to travel to the Bronx.

The report notes that payment rates are low for providers in the voucher program, and reimbursement is often slow, meaning “many providers do not want to take [the vouchers] as a result.”

But even among the families who do manage to take advantage of the program, the services are often in place months after the school year starts, partly because of delays earlier in the referral process caused by the city’s notoriously dysfunctional special education data system.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the city has hired 700 new clinicians over the past three years for occupational, speech and physical therapy — and the percentage of students receiving required related services stood at 95 percent last school year, an 11 percentage point increase over five years.

Holness pointed out that only a small share of students who need related services are in the voucher program, and “we work closely with each family to connect them with an appropriate provider in their area and, if needed, provide transportation.”

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said in an interview that the report’s findings did not surprise her and that related services are just as important as general academic instruction.

“It’s all the other things that go into a student’s ability to process and learn and develop in school,” Moroff said. “Without any of them, you’re denying a student a really important piece of their education.”