New York City officials said they are still struggling with the way they collect information on special education programs in the public schools. As a result, they have limited ability to determine whether children are receiving the services and classroom settings they are entitled to, and it is unclear when the city will be able to have a clear handle on compliance issues, if ever.
Education officials last week released a second annual report to the New York City Council on special education services, covering the 2015-2016 school year. Like the previous year's report, many schools were out of compliance: at least 41 percent of students were either not receiving or only partially receiving their mandated services or appropriate classroom placement.
But the report does not give the full picture because, once again, education officials were forced to give a disclaimer about the validity of their numbers: "The DOE's capacity to report on special education data reliably for the time period reported here was negatively affected by a lack of integration of certain key systems."
Translation: two important computer systems — one tracking the types of services and classroom settings students are entitled to, and one tracking what students are actually receiving — are not talking to each other.
One of the systems in question, the Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS, has produced headaches for education officials since it launched in 2011. Since then, SESIS has been the subject of a 2013 audit by the city comptroller, which found the program to be inadequate. SESIS is currently the subject of an ongoing lawsuit brought by the public advocate.
Without knowing how well schools are meeting students' needs, education officials are stunted in the way they can address bigger picture issues — like educational disparities between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers, said Lori Podvesker, senior manager of disability and education policy at the advocacy group IncludeNYC.
"It makes the deck even bigger to un-stack," said Podvesker. "If you don't even have that foundation, you can't get to the next steps."
Podvesker acknowledged that city education officials have been working hard to address the problem, though it is unclear when — if ever — city education officials will have a true picture of whether the more than 200,000 students receiving special education services in the public schools are getting all of the services they are entitled to by law.
"I don't think the city will ever get a handle on it because I think it's nearly impossible," she said. "That doesn't mean we can't do better."
City education officials admitted as much. They said they were working aggressively to address data issues.
"We are committed to providing special education programs and services to all students with disabilities and will continue to work tirelessly to ensure the data collection is accurate," said Toya Holness, a department spokeswoman.
Holness said the city rolled out new oversight measures in schools in September, that would be reflected in next year's compliance report to the City Council.