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A total review of special education to begin soon at the DOE

Remember that reorganization? Another part of it is that a former McKinsey consultant with no experience in special education is now launching a total review of the Department of Education’s special education services.

Garth Harries has been tasked with figuring out “how to clear up all the clutter” in the hard-to-navigate special education system as part of the department’s ongoing reorganization, which is intended to cut costs, DOE spokesman David Cantor told me. Harries, currently the head of the DOE’s Office of Portfolio Development, will begin his new position in a matter of weeks, Cantor said. “He’s going to basically try to make our entire provision of special education better, more effective, and more efficient.”

Harries, who is a lawyer, came to the DOE from McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm. “He does not have credentials in special education,” Cantor said. “What he is is an unusually talented analyst and mechanic of large operations.”

“I think I have a pretty good reputation for effective problem-solving and getting things done and treating people fairly,” Harries told me this evening. About special education, he said, “I think it’s an area where I can help. I have a lot to learn, obviously.”

The first thing Harries will do, Cantor said, is “spend a while learning.” An e-mail sent by Bonnie Brown, superintendent of District 75, which includes schools for students with disabilities only, said she learned at a meeting on Tuesday that Harries would be meeting with representatives from District 75 and other constituencies to identify redundancies in the city’s special education system.

Linda Wernikoff will continue to manage the DOE’s administration of day-to-day special education operations of while Harries’ study takes place. Harries will technically report to Marcia Lyles, the deputy chancellor in charge of teaching and learning, under the new organization.*

The reorganization is “most definitely related” to the current budget conditions, Cantor said, because it is laying the groundwork for the department to eliminate positions. But he said, “Garth’s mandate is not to go in to save X amount of money or any amount of money. His mandate is to go in and efficiently organize the special education office.”

A policy implemented when Harries headed the DOE’s Office of New Schools, which later became part of the portfolio office, allowed new small high schools to exclude students with disabilities in their first two years. That policy was criticized by special education advocates, and in 2006, the Citywide Council on High Schools, a parent group, filed a complaint against the policy with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. That complaint is still pending.

Harries told me he understood why the policy was controversial. But he said the policy was part of a strategy to allow small schools to build capacity to serve all students. That strategy led to “important and qualitatively better results within the small schools,” he said, noting that those schools now enroll proportionally more students with special needs than the system as a whole.

*Harries will report only to Marcia Lyles, not to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein as well, as I originally reported.

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