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Special ed caution urged as personnel, funding changes loom

During her brief stint as city schools chancellor, Cathie Black pulled the brakes on a planned rollout of special education reforms. Now, educators and parents are asking the city to slow things down once more.

They say the departure of the city’s top two special education officials will leave the Department of Education ill-equipped to carry out the planned reforms. They are also charging that the city’s proposal to change the way special education instruction is funded could encourage schools to place disabled students in settings that are not ideal for them.

The special education reforms are meant to encourage schools to move disabled students to settings that are less restrictive. The shift is in keeping with best practices in special education, and students are supposed to have their services changed only if it makes sense for them. But the city wants to add an incentive: Under a proposal likely to be approved next week, 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.

It’s a proposal that has educators and parents alike concerned. “When it comes to special education we all know that as you move a child to a less restrictive environment, it’s a better thing, but it only works when it is appropriate for the child,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at a union conference on Saturday. “When you start pushing to make that decision based on budget, then we have to start to question whether it’s appropriate or not.”

The elected parent council from Manhattan’s District 2 aired the same concerns in a letter sent last week to Laura Rodriguez, the outgoing deputy chancellor in charge of special education. “While it is difficult to tell exactly what the net result of the new Fair Student Funding formula will be, it seems likely that the proposed formula is neither sufficient nor flexible enough for schools to develop the best support structure for the students with special needs,” the letter reads.

The council is asking the city to delay the special education reforms until after Rodriguez’s successor, Corinne Rello-Anselmi, is firmly in place and a new deputy has been named. Lauren Katzman was the executive director of special education for the department until last month, when she left to head special education in Newark.

“During the time when a new initiative is introduced, a stable staff, particularly the architects of the reform, at the leadership level is critical in avoiding confusion and facilitating a smoother implementation,” the council’s letter says.

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