As predicted, the Panel for Education Policy approved a budget formula Wednesday night meant to hasten the integration of special education students into general education classrooms.
But before the vote, Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez defended the spending plan — and the broader special education reforms that it is meant to facilitate — against charges that the city is asking schools to move too quickly on increasing inclusion of students with special needs. Critics say that Rodriguez’s departure from the Department of Education next month should cause the city to pause the reforms, which are set to go citywide this fall after being delayed once before.
Under the new formula, students who receive special education services for only a portion of the day would bring more city funds than students in self-contained settings for the entire day.
No one at the meeting opposed the objectives behind the Department of Education special education reforms. But some worried that lack of understanding about special education students could cause confusion for parents, students, and teachers alike.
“Everybody’s on the same page,” said Wilfredo Pagan, the board member appointed by the Bronx borough president. “Most of us agree with the opportunity this reform brings to the table.”
“But let’s slow it down here and see how we’re going to re-approach this situation,” he said.
But Rodriguez said the integration of children with special needs cannot wait. She cited a large achievement gap between special education students and their general education peers, especially in graduation rates.
“By design, the work is urgent because the children haven’t done as well as we want them to do, and as they can do,” she said.
She said a pilot of the special education reforms in 250 schools resulted in increased integration of students with special needs into general education classes and a decreased number of students inappropriately labeled as having a disability. Past studies, she said, show special education students who spend time in standard classrooms achieve at higher rates.
But board member Dmytro Fedkowskyj questioned if one year of data from the pilot program was sufficient to justify such sweeping changes.
Rodriguez said it was, and that teacher training and a teacher task force — that met for the first time Wednesday morning — would help smooth the transition to increased integration. She said department officials were asking principals to focus on identifying teachers who would make good “matches” for classrooms that include students with special needs.
“We want to really focus on where the opportunities are and the teacher matches, and expand from there rather than change everything at once,” she said.
State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, the chair of a subcommittee on students with special needs, spoke during the public comment period. A special education teacher for decades, Benedetto said he wholeheartedly supported the department’s reforms. But referring to a memo to principals that promised “intensive audits” of student placement decisions, Benedetto said he worries some of the department’s language sounds threatening,
“It could say, ‘Put the kids in the places we want them, or else,’” he said. “I’m sure that’s not the intention, but there are people out there who are worried,” he said.
The elected parent council from Manhattan’s District 2 wrote to Rodriguez with similar concerns last week. The council members also expressed concern that the budget formula would takes away money from special education students who need it the most.
But Michael Tragale, the Department of Education’s chief financial officer, stressed that schools will not find themselves with too little money to provide the services that students require.
“There is a sufficient money in existing per capita that will fund those programs, and the baseline budget will not be impacted,” he said.
Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s panel appointee, worried that the changes to the special education program facilitated by the new budget formula would not be properly implemented without Rodriguez’s expertise. Rodriguez leaves her post at the end of June.
But Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he was not worried, and that Corinne Rello-Anselmi is well qualified to take over as deputy chancellor. Rello-Anselmi began her career as a special education teacher but most recently was working in a different branch of the department.
“We’re lucky to have a timely transition,” Walcott said.
The board also voted in favor of the co-location of Leadership Preparatory Charter School at I.S. 211 and P.S. 279 in Canarsie. Parents and Assemblyman Nick Perry expressed concern that sharing space could hurt I.S. 211, one of the only schools in the district with an “A” on its city progress report.
And parents and students from the Bronx New School, P.S. 51, insisted Walcott meet with them about the toxin whose discovery prompted the department to relocate the school last summer. The parents have been a persistent presence at public meetings. Walcott and Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm promised ongoing support for the families but urged them to seek aid from the Department of Health as well.