special needs

More students with disabilities got required services last year, but large gaps remain

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Significantly more students with disabilities received the services they were entitled to last year, according to new data released Wednesday, though over a quarter still only received partial services or none at all.

Last school year 73 percent of students received all of the services required by their individual learning plans, which can include services like counseling or physical or behavioral therapy. That represents a significant increase from the 2015-16 school year, when just 59 percent of students received all mandated services.

But the 14 percentage point jump comes as the city is revamping its notoriously glitchy special-education data system, which officials have previously blamed for inaccuracies in their own statistics. As a result, it is unclear how much of the increase stems from better data collection and how much reflects a boost in services.

“If it’s true, that’s amazing,“ said Lori Podvesker, a disability policy manager at IncludeNYC, referring to the rise in students receiving services. However, the city’s data-reporting challenges make her skeptical, she said.

“If they’ve already conceded that this data may not be completely accurate,” she added, “what makes us think that [the year-to-year increase] is 100 percent true?”

An education department spokeswoman could not say what portion of the increase resulted from better data collection. However, officials said they have worked to close gaps in services by sending schools weekly reports on each student with disabilities, and providing technical assistance through borough-based support centers.

“We have made major investments to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “We are building on this work and improving our data tracking capabilities to ensure we deliver for students and families.”

Wednesday’s report marks the third year the city has been required by law to release comprehensive statistics on how well it is serving its roughly 200,000 students with special needs — a group that dwarfs most entire school districts.

The city made scant progress on several indicators.

Roughly 28 percent of students had to wait longer than the two months allowed under law to be assessed for special education services, a one point improvement over the previous year.

The share of students who received none of their mandated services shrank by four percentage points, dropping from 8 to 4 percent. However, that represents only a one point improvement from the rate in 2014-15.

Advocates acknowledged that the data shows more students receiving all of their services. But that still leaves over 48,000 students, or 27 percent, getting partial support or none at all, the advocates noted.

“That’s really significant,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children. “That’s an entire school district somewhere else.”

The report also sheds light on how often school personnel recommend that students with disabilities take classes with their general-education peers.

About 70 percent of students with disabilities were recommended to spend at least 40 percent of their day in a general-education classroom last school year — essentially the same percentage as in 2014-15.

An education official said there has been an increase in students being recommended for “less-restrictive settings” when their special-education plans are rewritten, and that the number of students with intensive needs has increased.

Officials also pointed to the graduation rate for students with disabilities, which increased to nearly 45 percent in 2015-16, a 14 percentage point bump since the 2011-12 school year.

They also noted that 95 percent of students received their “related services” — which include physical therapy, certain medical services and counseling. But a report from the public advocate’s office earlier this year found that thousands of families still don’t receive related services because they are sometimes forced to find them on their own.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.