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City Warns Schools Not to Let Budget Constraints Shrink Special Ed Services

By Amy Zimmer | February 10, 2016 10:47am
 A classroom at P.S. 161 in Richmond Hill.
A classroom at P.S. 161 in Richmond Hill.
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

MANHATTAN — After years of denying problems with its revamped special education system, the city has taken a first step in acknowledging that some schools may have improperly downgraded students' special needs services, according to advocates and the teachers union.

The Department of Education quietly released a new “Special Education FAQ” document for teachers and school administrators last month in which it takes head-on the longstanding concerns of parents and educators over 2012 special ed reforms that attempt to integrate students through their local schools, DNAinfo has learned. 

Critics — including the teacher's union, which helped create the document — have long blasted the DOE for failing to accommodate students' required services outlined in their individualized education plans (IEPs) by failing to provide schools with additional resources.

But in its Jan. 12 document, created by the DOE, United Federation of Teachers and Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the city clarified that budgetary constraints are not allowed to infringe on student services.

"Can budget, availability of staff, and space limitations be considered when recommending special education instructional and related services? No," reads the document which was circulated by the DOE and the UFT to teachers, principals and superintendents.

"IEP recommendations must not be based on the services currently offered in a school, budget, availability of staff or space limitations."

The document goes on to encourage principals to contact their local Borough Field Support Centers if they need assistance.

STORY CONTINUES BENEATH LETTER:

Special Education Faq 01-12-2016

DOE officials told DNAinfo on Tuesday that they hope the document will help clarify the special education process for families, teachers and principals.

"This is a common sense solution that will be helpful for principals and teachers but most importantly, will benefit our students," DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said.

The UFT told its members in a Jan. 28 letter that the FAQ was a direct result of concerning survey results stemming from its December delegates meeting.

In a poll of nearly 900 chapter leaders, the UFT found that 44 percent said their schools had altered student IEPs to tamp down on the amount of resources schools had to give them.

"Before we did the survey, when we'd bring up members' concerns about ... special education issues with the DOE, they denied there was a problem," UFT President Michael Mulgrew wrote in a letter to Chapter Leaders on Jan. 28.

"Your responses gave us the documentation that we needed to prove there were real issues."

After that meeting, the DOE agreed a document was needed to set down the rules and protocols, Mulgrew said.

"Now that we've spelled out the requirements," he added, "it's time to make sure that programs are being implemented and properly supported in schools."

The FAQ is a clear departure from what school leaders have been told before, sources told DNAinfo New York.

For instance, DOE staffers previously told principals “to be flexible” when it comes to addressing students' special needs, according to one Manhattan elementary school principal who requested anonymity.

“We’re trying to make things work as best as we can, but we may not have the physical space, funding or staff” to fulfill a student's IEP, the principal said.

“You don’t want to have that conversation with a parent because it sounds like you don’t want their kid in your school.”

The principal has felt pressured to take a student who is supposed to be in a self-contained class with no more than 12 other special needs students and instead put them into a mixed classroom which can have up to 32 students.

The principal added that the FAQ letter "puts principals in a vulnerable spot," because, "we’re doing the best we can, but we’re not getting the right supports."

While the FAQ tells schools what they can't do, it doesn’t give them a road map for what they can do, the principal said.

Other principals and teachers also told DNAinfo that these mixed special education classes — known as integrated co-teaching, since they are taught by a special ed teacher and a general ed teacher — remain rife with issues.

Many teachers get little to no training, and some principals will sometimes choose teachers with no background in special education for these classes simply because they have openings in their schedules.

One educator said her school gamed the special education system by changing the name of a social studies class to a civics class, meaning that any special education student who took it no longer needed a second teacher because it was considered an elective.

Still, advocates hailed the DOE's first step as a positive sign.

The fact that special education FAQ clearly states that budget, staff and space can’t limit services is “big,” said Maggie Moroff, of Advocates for Children.

“They’re trying to send a real message to the schools,” she said, noting how her group “used to fight all the time to get kids into district schools” and now “we fight all the time to get kids out” because the reform resulted in students being unable to get what they needed.

But Moroff said more needs to be done.

For starters, the DOE needs to take the "next step" and tell schools how to meet students' needs when their budgets, staff and space can’t meet them beyond simply working with their Borough Field Support Centers, she said.

She also said the FAQ document — which the DOE circulated as part of the Chancellor's weekly newsletter to principals on Jan. 20 but has not shared with parents — should be distributed widely, especially to parents who need it to help them figure out what services their kids are owed.

“This is a a document that many parents could find useful,” Moroff said.