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Testimony submitted to the New York City Council Committee on Education regarding special education services


Testimony of UFT President Michael Mulgrew submitted to the New York City Council Committee on Education

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) wishes to thank Chairman Mark Treyger and the Committee on Education for the opportunity to share our views on the Department of Education’s (DOE) special education services and the resolution and series of bills introduced by council members in response to compliance issues; parental complaints about policies governing private tuition and tutoring; new reporting mandates; and the creation of a new DOE position, a special education czar.

The union acknowledges members of this committee, Chair Treyger, Finance Chair Dromm and Councilmember Kallos who have shown particular concern over the Department of Education’s compliance with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), its provision of early intervention services to preschool-aged children and what can be learned from the department’s data. We likewise acknowledge Councilmember Rosenthal’s concerns with respect to the growing practice of the department paying private school tuition and tutoring costs for its students with IEPs in cases where it was determined that the DOE failed to deliver a free, appropriate, public education (FAPE).  As several members of the City Council are former educators and individual members have sponsored the proposed bills under consideration today and you’ve given parents and advocates the opportunity to deliver compelling stories of the often onerous journey navigating the special education bureaucracy, the union believes your oversight will generate positive change.

Before examining each piece of proposed legislation, the union would like to focus on what we believe will support our educators and providers of related services to best help our students learn.

Evidence-based curriculum and instruction for all, especially for our earliest learners

Evidenced-based curriculum and instruction are crucial for successfully educating all students. Providing a sufficient complement of trained educators and school-related therapists and clinicians, delivering services to students with special needs, is equally important. These go hand in hand. Without a structure based on sound instruction in foundational literacy skills and interventions for the students who, due to their differing learning abilities, aren’t responding to it — including those with dyslexia — we’re not advancing learning. And without the requisite training, our educators become hamstrung in their ability to effectively use the instructional resources provided. While this is particularly important to introduce to the earliest learners, this is needed in every school, at every level.

The critical next steps are early identification and intervention. Many young people do not learn to read intuitively.  By designing and rolling out the Reading for All initiative, the DOE, we believe, affirmatively moved to address literacy for the early grades.  At the core of the Reading for All initiative is appropriate instruction. As outlined in the New York State Education Department’s Minimum Requirements of a Response to Intervention Program, “appropriate instruction” means “scientific research-based reading programs that include explicit instruction in 1) phonemic awareness, 2) phonics, 3) vocabulary development, 4) reading fluency and 5) reading comprehension strategies," commonly referred to as the "five pillars" of literacy.

We applaud the move toward implementing sound, evidence-based literacy instruction and support in early grades, however it’s time to take the next step and provide interventions and support for students who are unable to learn to read, even when provided appropriate instruction, including those with dyslexia.

This instruction is most successful when provided before Grade 3, but older students who have not learned to read need it as well. Currently, there is no systemic infrastructure to support this type of instruction. We reiterate the need to create this infrastructure in all of our schools — elementary (including pre-K), middle and high — and in all of our instructional settings — District 75, District 79, career and technical education (CTE) and programs for incarcerated youth.

For these reasons the union supported the repurposing of the IEP teacher position in 2016, because it strengthened the ability of educators to address literacy learning issues early. However, the system works against itself and the best interests of the children when foundational literacy isn’t the standard. A greater number of students become identified as requiring literacy interventions. In our view, this leads to the problem we have with improper referrals.

IEP teachers and literacy specialists should be supporting a limited number of students. It’s unreasonable and unsound practice for these educators and specialists to be expected to intervene in all cases of students who would have otherwise learned to read with sound instruction.

Compounding these issues is the interrelation of learning and literacy related disabilities to behavioral disabilities. Effectively, students with severe difficulty reading often develop behavior issues and students with behavior disabilities typically develop reading deficits. Clinicians specializing in socio-emotional therapies must work in tandem with educators specializing in literacy.

Focusing on foundational literacy skills and interventions with the appropriate staffing, curriculum and training should be a requirement, in our view, and not an option. The DOE needs to take an affirmative stand and not allow schools to decide whether to “opt-in.” Knowledgeable DOE administrators have acknowledged that evidence-based literacy instruction is provided in approximately 20 percent of schools. Equally important, we recommend that the training is centrally developed and approved. 

How the City Council can best support students with special needs, their educators and their parents and guardians

  • Within the city budget process, make sure that all special education funds are targeted and discrete and fall outside the city’s Fair Student Funding formula. Currently, related services and student-specific paraprofessional services are funded outside of Fair Student funding, which prevents principals from using the funds for things other than what they were intended for.  By designating funds for special education instructional services and supports this way, we believe more students would receive their full slate of mandated services. We receive many complaints from teachers that they are supposed to be one of two teachers assigned to an ICT class, but the principal has found funding for only one teacher in the class. Those students are being denied their mandated services.
  • Another widespread problem is principals not finding the funds to pay for a substitute when one of two ICT teachers has an absence. Discrete funding of these services would ensure more students get them. Within the context of current data collection, it would help to evaluate tracking trends for specific services, as well as adequate special education coverage for long-term absences.
  • Send whatever additional special education funds New York City allocates directly to the schools. In particular we must note, bilingual special education services are woefully under-resourced and these students are by far the most underserved. We advocate spending any additional funds on clinicians —school psychologists and social workers —who would have a direct impact on students’ lives and a school community’s ability to provide mandated services.
  • From our understanding, the DOE has asked for extra clinicians and the Office of Management and Budget hasn’t included this funding in the administration’s preliminary budget.
  • Expand the successful IEP Teacher Program, which assigned 960 teachers to 960 schools to provide literacy intervention for both special education and general education students. These intervention specialists were assigned to schools that had high rates of special education referrals.
  • Fund more evidenced-basedinstruction, especially for preschool through early elementary grades. Our goal is to provide evidence-based literacy instruction and intervention for struggling readers, to prevent students from falling behind and averting the need for special education services down the road.
  • Find ways of working with institutions of higher education. Particularly to address the shortage of bilingual special education teachers, social workers and school psychologists and to prepare more special educators and literacy specialists to unlock barriers to learning from early learners through high school.

Additionally, we continue to seek the City Council’s support to implement the following:

  • Align the city’s categorization of dyslexia and language-based disabilities on its IEPs with that of the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services;
  • Deliver the explicit, sequential, intensive and sustained interventions that students with language-based learning disabilities in the area of reading, including dyslexia need;
  • Provide training in evidence-based, foundational literacy skills instruction and dyslexia interventions to special education teachers.

We stand ready to work in partnership with the DOE and the New York City Council as both entities place a greater emphasis on improving outcomes for children struggling with the full complement of needs from attention deficits, to processing issues to dyslexia and related language-based learning disabilities.

The UFT appreciates regulations that compel compliance with student IEPs and parental rights

Res. No. 0749-2019: Establishing a Special Education Czar

Chairman Treyger, you’ve been on the front line in the classroom, often teaching without the full range of resources and supports your students required. We understand your desire for greater accountability from the administration to ensure compliance with IEPs and other requirements for students in special education.

The UFT’s special education team, led by Vice President MaryJo Ginese, works closely with educators, child advocates and parents across the city and state to support our students receiving special education services. So, while we were deeply moved by parents’ recounting of painful, resource-draining, confounding interactions with the special education infrastructure at your oversight hearing on February 25, we were far from surprised.

Respectfully, we think that adding layers to the bureaucracy —even in the name of accountability —undermines the goal. We’re unsure another cabinet level, highly compensated executive would result in dismantling the morass parents face and students are hampered by. The most recent restructuring, as Chief Academic Officer Dr. Linda Chen pointed out, already includes executive superintendents. Rather than add to the central structure, we argue for reallocating some of those dollars directly to school-based special education services. When funding is targeted, discrete and transparent, our students benefit. Our educators and related service providers are already responsible for doing the work —allocate the funding directly to this work.

The reporting and compliance landscape expanded exponentially creating burdensome, duplicative processes and paperwork

Int. No. 1406-2019 Mandating Reporting on Preschool Special Education Services

Finance Chair Dromm, with over 25 years educating students in Queens, we know you’re concerned about the impact of burdensome reporting on our members already engaged in K-12 reporting through the soon to be defunct, but slated for replacement, SESIS.

The union agrees that we lack the data to better inform decisions on resources and services for our preschool students. Currently, files belonging to pre-K students are not in the same format as files belonging to K-12 students. This makes for a tough transition. What the union believes would be helpful is aligning early intervention and pre-K filing and reporting systems to K-12, to better assure a seamless transition for students when they move from early intervention to pre-K and to K-12.

As the department seeks to phase-in a replacement data system for SESIS, the new system should address these alignment issues.In the interim, we respectfully ask the City Council not to place onerous new requirements on SESIS.

Int. No. 0900-2018 Mandating Tri-annual Reporting on Special Education Services
Int. No. 0559-2018 Mandating School-level Data on Student IEP Compliance

These bills aren’t as helpful as the Council intends for our members doing this work. State regulations require special education teachers to file reams of duplicative forms. This compliance paperwork does not directly help students, and in fact wastes educators’ precious time that could be better spent with their students.

Much of the required paperwork is driven by state compliance issues. We would ask that New York City not exacerbate this existing problem by requiring yet more duplicate record keeping. Rather, we respectfully suggest that City Council policy analysts review the data the administration already compiles for the New York State Education Department.

Int. No. 1380-2019 Mandating Reporting on Response to Parent Request for Private Tutoring and Private School Tuition Payments

Council member Rosenthal in this proposed legislation and in her critical questioning at Monday’s hearing, hits to the heart of the frustration so many parents experience. After fiercely advocating for services for their children in district public schools, with precious time elapsing as their children are underserved, and after spending their own money for private diagnostics such as neuropsychological evaluations, parents request reimbursement for private tutoring and private school tuition.  The policy enabling parents to request private tutoring and placement for their children has resulted in growing numbers of parents seeking this option. As reported in the January 7 issue of Chalkbeat, “4,431 students with disabilities attended private schools paid for by the education department in fiscal year 2017, according to the most recent data obtained… a third more than in 2014.”

Every story, by every parent, reflects that this option only works for those with the time, resources and skill to navigate the process. Every week, every month and every school year that students in need go without the services that match their needs is precious time lost. Let’s not let this happen. We agree the Council should explore parent access and lack of access to these services. Most important, the district public schools should have the services to meet the needs of all students.

A sense of urgency — closing thoughts for the City Council

Overall, the UFT believes that the oversight of special education services must focus more on why students aren’t receiving services, rather than documenting service delivery failures. Ultimately, where’s the sense of urgency and are we asking the critical questions?

The union needs the City Council to understand that Fair Student Funding serves as a major barrier to children receiving services.  If school funding for special education instructional services is discrete, principals will only get the money if they spend it for the teachers and instructional support personnel needed to appropriately staff special education classes and services. The DOE learned that lesson once and then promptly forgot it.

Unfortunately, another funding challenge that will have an impact on delivering services to students is on the horizon. The UFT believes that the current stateExecutive Budget proposal would erode the quality of education for students receiving special education services and diminish the protections these critical resources provide in educating our students with disabilities.

The Executive Budget proposal allows school districts, BOCES and private schools to petition the State Education Department for flexibility in complying with certain special education requirements. In addition, while the Executive Budget fully funds expense-based aids in the upcoming year, starting in the 2020-21 school year, the budget proposal merges 11 expense-based aids (BOCES, transportation, special services, high tax, textbook, school library materials, computer software, computer hardware and technology, supplemental public excess cost, transitional aid and academic enhancement) into one category block grant, called services aid. Going forward, the growth in this aid category would be tied to inflation and student enrollment growth rather than actual expenditures in these critical areas. This proposed cap on expense-based aids would damage programs and services and reduce aid reimbursement to districts. Under this proposal, a school district may have to choose between busing children or shuttering programs and enrichment for students.

The challenges loom large and the number of students who require and deserve quality mandated services grows annually. Nationally, school districts have special education populations that hover around 13 percent of the total student population.  In New York City, our 200,000 students identified for these services nears 20 percent and is growing. We question what accounts for so many more children with learning and other disabilities. We believe more education dollars should be focused on providing strong foundational skills in pre-K, kindergarten and 1st grade. Evidence shows that the use of research-based, foundational reading skill programs results in fewer special education referrals down the road.

Our members and students benefit from your critical oversight of the programs and academic resources our students with IEPs need to succeed and soar.