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Unhappy with DOE, city rep proposes moving special ed to Health Department

August 6, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick

Following thousands of complaints and even a lawsuit, one City Council member wants to take special education out of the hands of the city’s Department of Education and hand it over to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, instead.

In a City Council resolution introduced July 23, Bronx Councilmember Andy King called on city, state and federal officials to authorize the transfer of regulation, alleging that the program — in which nearly 20 percent of the city’s public school students partake — has suffered at the hands of the DOE for far too long.

The resolution cites nearly 7,500 special ed-related, due-process complaints against the DOE as of this February, as well as a 2016 lawsuit that asserted a lack of sufficient tracking through the city’s Special Education Student Information System.

The suit, brought forth by then-Public Advocate Letitia James, alleged that $356 million in Medicaid dollars had been lost over the years due to “inadequacies and glitches” of SESIS — a system (now being phased out) that was intended to facilitate Individualized Education Programs for special education students and to ensure their needs were met, but instead, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day. (An IEP is a roadmap for special education that lays out the program of special education instruction, support and services a student needs. A student with an IEP has special needs, but may also be enrolled in standard classes.)

“The Department of Education, for the past 20 years, has not gotten it right in helping students and their families who are in need of true special education services,” King told the Brooklyn Eagle via email. “A lawsuit should not determine who receives the right special education services when the Department of Education has been tasked with the responsibility of administrating these services. Since DOE has proven they are incapable of delivering this task, the resolution recommends that control of special education be moved to [Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] who has been delivering on that service anyway.”

Students with IEPs might have a wide variety of needs, from learning disabilities and emotional disturbances to speech or language impairments.

The individualized nature of IEPs, a District 75 speech improvement teacher told the Eagle, might be reason enough to relinquish DOE’s control of the program.

“I think it’s an interesting strategy that would benefit students within the District 75 community,” the educator said. “It’s time we rethink how to teach students with special needs.”

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District 75 is a citywide district — the only one that is not associated with a specific neighborhood — that serves students with significant challenges such as autism spectrum disorders, significant cognitive delays, sensory impairments and multiple disabilities. D75 students have smaller class sizes (there are at most 12 students in a D75 class), and are provided support from speech language pathologists, physical therapists and occupational therapists, among others.

While not all students who have an IEP attend D75 schools, all D75 students have an IEP and, thought they’re often exempt from state testing, D75 students are still held to other, arguably high DOE standards.

While some of her students struggle with everyday skills like getting dressed and going to the bathroom, those same kids are still being forced to learn things like integers and fractions under the DOE curriculum, the educator told the Eagle.

“The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene might be able to see these students in a different light,” she said, “and maybe then our ways of teaching would better fit their specific and special needs.”

But, King’s resolution has also raised red flags for some special education experts.

“We have serious concerns about moving special education to the [Department of Health and Mental Hygiene]. We want those with expertise in education to work with all children, including those with disabilities,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children of New York.

Moroff worries that taking the program away from the DOE would leave out an important piece of the puzzle — education.

We worry that moving responsibility away from the Department of Education would essentially foreclose access to the critical academic piece of the educational experience for about 230,000 students in New York City alone,” she told the Eagle.

“There are clearly problems with special education here in the city and elsewhere,” Moroff said. “That’s why we have so many staff at AFC working on special education issues, but we believe the answer is to make critical and necessary improvements — many of which the local DOE is already working on — and not just rearrange the deck chairs.”

Related: More than 200 kids are still waiting for special ed pre-K seats

In response to the resolution, the DOE doubled down on its commitment to special education.

“We’re committed to serving students with disabilities in the most inclusive environments appropriate for their needs, and creating a separate special education system under a different agency isn’t the right way to do that,” DOE Spokesperson Danielle Filson told the Eagle. “This administration has hired 4,500 special education staff, added new autism and bilingual programs, and is investing $33 million in new special education resources this year.

Since the 2013-2014 school year, the agency has hired approximately 3,000 new special ed teachers, 800 speech therapists and 500 occupational therapists. The DOE has also expanded its bilingual special education and its Autism Spectrum Disorder program offerings.

Still, there is more to be done, Filson acknowledged.

“We know there’s a lot more work to better serve our students with disabilities, and we’re committed to building on the progress we’ve made so far,” she said.

From here, King’s resolution heads to Council’s Committee on Education.

King represents the Baychester, Co-op City, Edenwald, Eastchester, Wakefield and Williamsbridge sections of the Bronx.

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