City Panel Approves Special Education Inclusion Plan

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1:23 p.m. | Updated A plan to restructure the city’s special education program by funneling thousands of learning-disabled children into mainstream classrooms — an increasingly popular practice around the country — was given the go-ahead Wednesday night when the Panel for Education Policy voted to change the city's financing formula to pay for it.

At its monthly meeting, the panel voted to align the fair student funding formula — the weighted formula that the Department of Education uses to allocate money for the city's neediest students, including those in special education — with its special education initiative. The new formula will allocate money to students, not to special education classes, in line with a five-year-old policy that calls for education dollars to follow students.

Laura Rodriguez, the deputy chancellor for special education, who has helped spearhead the three-year-old plan in hopes of better serving the city’s growing special education population, characterized the move as “urgent” and called it “a change of a mind-set.”

But parents and even some members of the panel, which provides oversight of city education policy, were skeptical.

Noah Gotbaum, a member of District 3’s Community Education Council and a longtime critic of the Department of Education, accused the department of “gutting the special education system” to shave dollars off its budget.

“It’s all about money,” he said. “It’s not about children.”

Pointing to a provision in the plan that gives principals more money for special education students who are mainstreamed than those who are placed in self-contained classes, State Assemblyman Michael R. Benedetto of the Bronx said he wondered if the Education Department worried that it would look as if it were “bribing” administrators to clear out special education classrooms.

The panel’s Queen’s representative, Dmytro Fedkowskyi, who voted against changing the financing formula, wanted to know why he had been told that a 260-school pilot program that has sought to test the idea across the five boroughs was “rosy perfect.”

“You’re saying everything worked out perfectly?” he asked.

On Thursday, the city's chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, dismissed claims that the city was trying to save money.

"To serve our kids, we're going to have to be more specific and more individualized," he said. "That's more expensive."

He said he understood the "fear and anxiety" among parents, but noted that New York was not, in fact, breaking new ground. Many districts across the country, and many in New York State, have already moved forward with more inclusive settings for special education students. "This is clearly about best practices," he said.

City officials said that last year fewer than 4,000 special education students were "declassified," and far too few were managing to move beyond their challenges. Officials said the pilot program had shown that "inclusion" made a difference.

A report on the pilot study showed that a sampling of 19 percent of special education students in the city put in less-restrictive settings did better on average on statewide exams than those who had not moved.

At the panel's meeting Wednesday inside the sprawling William Howard Taft High School in the southwest Bronx, parents, panel members and local officials spent more than an hour debating the plan, which seeks to improve upon the dismal graduation rate of more than 177,000 special education students in New York City.

The plan also hopes to enhance their prospects by sending all but the most severe cases to their neighborhood schools, and encouraging principals to enroll them in general education classes.

Currently, many are bused around the city to special education schools. Only 31 percent graduate high school in four years. And a mere 4 percent of the students who spent all of their time from second grade through high school in a special education class graduated high school in four years.

Ms. Rodriguez, the deputy chancellor, said she thought the reason for this was that students were not getting the same kind of academic stimulation they might get in a mainstream classroom.

“Special education, which is supposed to be a service, has become a place,” she said.

Indeed, national studies indicate that learning-disabled students who are placed in general education classes are absent less, tend to be less disruptive and score higher on standardized math and reading tests than those in more restrictive settings.

Some panel members said the plan was moving too fast, and wondered if the Department of Education was really ready to carry it out this fall.

Wilfredo Pagan, the panel’s Bronx representative and the father of six children, at least one of whom has used special education services, said he worried that the push to mainstream children might leave some without the services they needed. “Slow down a bit here,” he said.

To which Ms. Rodriguez said, “We have slowed it down.”

The plan, she said, had been in the works since 2009, after a lengthy review of the city’s special education programming by Garth Harries, a former Education Department consultant who was charged with helping to fix it.

For the past two years, the city has been conducting a pilot program. And the Education Department has spent months working with administrators at other schools to get them up to speed.

The plan was, in fact, to begin in all schools in 2011 under former Chancellor Cathleen P. Black, but administrators decided they needed more time to prepare schools for the shift.

After the vote, which was 8 to 3, with one member abstaining, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott, who stayed relatively silent during the conversation, said, “We’re pure, at least with regards to the goals we are trying to achieve.”