special education

Thousands of students still wait for special education services or don’t receive them at all, city figures reveal

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

New data released Tuesday show that New York City is still struggling to provide required services to many of its students with disabilities.

About 30 percent of students had to wait longer than the two months allowed under law to be assessed for education plans that outline the services the city is required to provide them, according to data from last school year. Meanwhile, 41 percent of students were offered only partial services required on those plans — or no services at all.

Tuesday’s report is only the second time the city has released comprehensive statistics on how well the city is serving its roughly 212,000 students with special needs. Advocates and legislators had long complained that the city withheld crucial information about this population, a group that by itself would be roughly the seventh largest school system in the country.

With some exceptions, numbers from the new report show a relatively static trend in how well the city is serving students with disabilities compared with the 2014-15 school year.

Just 59 percent of students received the full range of services required on their individualized education programs, or IEPs, compared with 60 percent the previous school year. And 33 percent, or roughly 58,000 students, received only partial services — down from 35 percent.

The number of students who received no services, despite being recommended for them, rose from 5 to 8 percent, or almost 14,000 students.

“That’s really disheartening,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at Advocates for Children. “But I think it’s also a big wake-up call. The fact that they’re doing the reporting and that it’s public and people are looking at it is a good thing.”

By law, the city has to hold IEP meetings within 60 days of a parent giving consent; they are used to develop a student’s annual goals and supports. This past school year, 71 percent of students got their IEPs within the legally required timeframe, compared with 69.5 percent during 2014-15.

“While we continue to make progress in improving our special education processes and systems,” wrote education department spokeswoman Toya Holness, “we have a lot more work to do to reach our goal of ensuring all students are receiving the supports they need.”

But, as in the past, the city issued a warning about its own statistics. Due to major flaws with the city’s special education tracking system, which has sparked litigation, officials warned the data may not be completely reliable.

“We are aggressively working to address the data concerns that presented challenges in last year’s and this year’s reports, and for the current (2016-17) school year,” Holness wrote in an email.

The city pointed to other bright spots: The number of students receiving related services such as speech and occupational therapies increased to 94.8 percent, according to the city. And graduation rates for students with disabilities has increased roughly 10 percent since 2011-12 to 41.1 percent.

“We’ve seen important progress and I’m encouraged by the preliminary information we’re seeing,” DOE Deputy Chancellor Corinne Rello-Anselmi, said in a statement. “We’ll continue to work tirelessly to ensure the data collection is accurate and expand programs and provide schools with the resources they need to provide a high-quality education for all students with disabilities.”

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.”