The Department of Education will begin helping families who cannot afford to wait to have their transportation costs reimbursed during the school bus strike, the department’s top special education official announced Thursday night.
Corinne Rello-Anselmi, deputy chancellor for special education and English language learners, told the Citywide Council on Special Education at its monthly meeting that the department was looking for new ways to make sure that students with special needs, who are disproportionately affected by the strike, can get to school. In the first two days of the bus strike, attendance in schools for students with disabilities was down sharply.
Due to disabilities many of the special education students who usually ride buses cannot simply rely on public transportation, so they instead must rely on private car services and then await reimbursement from the city. This presents a financial strain for low-income families who may not have the money to lay out to pay for private car services during the strike.
As one teacher told GothamSchools earlier this week, “But what if parents don’t have any money? You’ll reimburse them, but who’s going to give them the money to get there?”
Until last night, I have been the student representative to the council, and as a student with cerebral palsy, I have always ridden a yellow bus to get to school. This week, I have been taking a taxi because public transportation between my home and my school is difficult to navigate.
Fortunately, my family can afford to lay out the cab fare — for a couple of days. But with the fares costing $25 each way, paying up front is only a temporary solution that can last my family at most a week. But department officials told me it could take two weeks to get a check after mailing in the reimbursement form, and I know that waiting even a week would be difficult for many families, especially those for whom the costs are even higher.
Rello-Anselmi said at the meeting that the department recognized that this was a major issue and was working on a plan to address it. She said more details would be announced soon but that schools would play an important role in identifying low-income families who would benefit from getting more help paying for transportation costs. Families who are struggling to get their students to school, should begin speaking with their school’s administrators immediately, she said.
This sounds like a great partial solution. But it does not solve the fact that this strike has put unnecessary stress on over 150,000 students, including 52,000 with disabilities, and their families. As a student who relies on yellow bus service, I urge both sides to work out an agreement and stop treating students as a bargaining tool. The most challenging part of the school day should not be getting school in the first place.
And the bus strike is happening in the middle of an incredibly important year for special education. This school year marks the first time that the city’s special education reforms, aimed at creating more inclusive classrooms, is being rolled out to all of the city’s 1,700 schools. The year was supposed to provide meaningful data about the effectiveness of this reform for the first time.
But when I raised the question of how the strike would impact the reforms’ progress, department officials reminded us that the strike isn’t the first thing costing students with special needs lots of instructional time. The week of instruction missed due to Hurricane Sandy is also playing a role.
Part of the meeting was also spent discussing the criticism that a group of schools had raised about the way the city was funding schools to carry out the special education reforms. The council discussed the changes that were made to the funding rules after GothamSchools first brought the schools’ concerns to light.
But while the department’s adjustments mean schools won’t see massive midyear cuts because of the funding change, officials announced on Thursday night that they could still lose money because of the breakdown in teacher evaluation talks between the Department of Education and the teachers union.
The breakdown will cost the city $250 million in state funds, which will place additional strain on the special education reform efforts and make things even more difficult for students with disabilities.
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