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Special ed reform deprives students of needed services

New York Teacher

Jasmine Santana was dismayed.

Her 6-year-old son, Eric, was sent to PS 232, right across the street from where they live in Howard Beach. It was a noisy classroom with 25 students. Her son, who is autistic, was supposed to be in a self-contained class with one teacher, one paraprofessional and 12 students, according to his Individualized Education Program, but the Department of Education assigned him to the school closest to his home.

“He’s sensitive to noise,” Santana said.

The school couldn’t offer a smaller class. Eric started falling behind and began acting out. “His behavior changed dramatically,” she said. “He had never been aggressive, ever.”

She turned to Advocates for Children of New York and with its assistance, he was placed in a 12:1:1 class at PS 90 in Richmond Hill, a half-hour away by school bus.

“He’s reading by himself, and bringing home 100s on math tests,” Santana said. “He’s so happy.”

Santana’s story ended well, but for most parents, the reform nightmare continues.

The DOE launched its special education reform in 2012 with the goal of integrating as many special education students as possible into their home-zoned schools alongside general education students. City education officials said greater inclusion would improve the academic performance and graduation rates of students with disabilities.

But advocates say hundreds of parents of children with disabilities have been reaching out to them to complain that their children are not receiving the resources or services outlined in their IEPs. Carmen Alvarez, the UFT vice president for special education, said she has received numerous calls as well.

The UFT continues to press the DOE to fix the problems. In an exchange of letters with Chancellor Dennis Walcott, UFT President Michael Mulgrew castigated the DOE for failing to implement the reform properly. “Students should be able to go to the school that best fulfills the prescriptions of their IEPs, instead of having the school tailor the IEP to fit the school’s services,” he wrote. “Teachers and staff must be given the professional development they require to serve the new student population, as the DOE has promised. And your staff and networks must be held accountable for their inability to carry out the DOE’s reform in a way that places student needs first.”

Alvarez and other advocates testified Oct. 25 before the City Council Education Committee on the problems with the rollout. The reform changed how special education is funded: Instead of basing a school’s special-education funding on the number of classrooms that serve students with disabilities, it now hinges on the number of those students enrolled at a school. As a result, funding for self-contained special education classes has decreased and part-time special education services — delivered to students who are in general education classrooms — are rising.

“This has created a financial incentive for cash-strapped principals to close self-contained classrooms and open up more integrated co-teaching classrooms regardless of the needs of the students,” Alvarez told the committee. She also blasted the DOE’s failure to mandate professional development for teachers who are incorporating special needs children in their classes for the first time, and called for the dissolution of the DOE networks that she said have failed to manage the reform effectively.

Echoing Alvarez’s concerns, Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator for Advocates for Children, told the committee that there are “huge problems with the network structure.” Parents have difficulty getting a response from the network and often find themselves alone in their efforts to secure appropriate services, she said.

Rue Zalia Watkins, an education services specialist for the Mental Health Association of New York City, testified that hopes for the reform were “shattered” by its fragmented approach that confused families and lacked the funding to ensure the massive transition would be successful.

Rachel Howard, the executive director of Resources for Children with Special Needs, a parent-led group, submitted testimony to the committee citing calls from over 1,400 parents concerning problems obtaining services for their children since the reform was implemented one year ago. In addition to more professional development, she called on the DOE to restore decision-making authority to the IEP teams so that services and resources are based on the specific needs of the student.