Brooklyn Boro

OPINION: Keep special ed in DOE’s hands

September 5, 2019 Paul O'Neill
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A few weeks ago, New York City Council member Andy King introduced a resolution calling on city, state and federal officials to transfer oversight of special education from the City’s Department of Education to its Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

He claims that this step is needed because the DOE has chronically failed at providing and managing special education services for the roughly 200,000 students in New York City who are in need of them.

To be clear, many children with disabilities are badly underserved, and special education is a constant challenge in New York and everywhere else.

But this is a terrible, half-baked idea.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

The councilmember offers no information suggesting how the Department of Health would actually take over and carry out a special education program for 200,000 students. He just says that it should happen. In fact, his resolution in the New York City Council actually calls on the U.S. Congress to pass a law permitting the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to take on special education, for the New York State legislature to pass corresponding legislation, and for the governor of New York to implement it.

All of this sounds fanciful and perhaps politically motivated, as if said to make a point or a joke or to attract attention rather than to put forward a practical plan that could actually help students with disabilities in New York City schools.

Local advocates for children with disabilities have also expressed their concerns with the resolution. Quoted in the Brooklyn Eagle, Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator for Advocates for Children of New York, one of the primary organizations that holds the DOE accountable for serving students with disabilities well, said,  “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.”

This is an excellent point. Special education is not primarily a health issue, and there is no reason to believe that handing it over to health authorities will help children excel at reading or improve their math skills.

It is worth pausing to note that shining a light on a serious problem can be very impactful. The DOE has struggled to effectively and consistently operate the largest district special education program the country. In his resolution and in the media, the councilmember cites sobering statistics, such as data indicating that there were nearly 7,500 special education-related due-process complaints against the DOE as of this past February. He also highlights a 2016 lawsuit that called out extreme deficiencies in the city’s Special Education Student Information System.

New York City can and must do better. Calling attention to systemic problems like these can keep the pressure on those who are responsible for making special education work.

But that is no excuse for offering a nonsense solution to a serious, chronic problem. So what is really going on here? Too often, students with disabilities are used as a prop by people or organizations with their own agenda.

It isn’t clear what is motivating the councilmember, but if his goal is to benefit these vulnerable children whose needs are urgent, complicated and expensive to provide, he could work with the DOE to build their capacity and strengthen their effectiveness, rather than simply throwing rocks.

Paul O’Neill is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

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