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City officials say they back goal of special-ed data bill, but want revisions

Department of Education officials, including special-education chief Corrine Rello-Anselmi center) testified at a City Council hearing Tuesday.
Department of Education officials, including special-education chief Corrine Rello-Anselmi center) testified at a City Council hearing Tuesday.
Geoff Decker

City officials said Tuesday that they support the idea of making more special-education data public, but stopped short of endorsing a proposed law that would require them to do so, even as advocates sought to strengthen the bill.

The comments came at a City Council hearing focused on special education, where lawmakers also pressed the education department officials on the thousands of legally mandated services the city failed to provide special-needs students with last school year, as revealed in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is a very, very serious need that has to be met,” said City Councilman Mark Treyger of Coney Island, one of many far-flung and low-income neighborhoods across the city where students are less likely to receive certain special-education services, such as speech therapy or counseling.

The bill would require the education department to release an annual report with a variety of data about its special-education offerings, including how many students are mandated to receive services and how long it takes the city to provide them. The report would note the percentage of special-needs students whose personal learning plans are being properly enacted, and would list demographic information about those students.

The department supports “the goal” of making such information available to the public, Corrine Rello-Anselmi, the deputy chancellor in charge of special education, said during her testimony. But it would like to help revise the proposed law to reflect two points, she said. First, that the agency is already creating school-level reports with much of that data, which will be posted online. And second, that federal student-privacy laws restrict the release of certain data.

Rello-Anselmi did not describe the specific changes the city wants made to the legislation, and a department spokesman did not immediately provide details.

Meanwhile, advocates who spoke at the hearing said the bill should be expanded to require the release of even more information, such as the number of students receiving specific services, such as speech or physical therapy. Still, they uniformly backed the proposal.

“This certainly advances the cause of openness and transparency, both of which are priorities for this administration and the DOE,” said Nina Lublin, early childhood specialist at Resources for Children with Special Needs.

Treyger and Councilman Daniel Dromm both cited the Chalkbeat report that found that this June the city did not provide more than 15,000 “related services,” a type of special-education support that also includes occupational therapy, physical therapy, and help for sight or hearing problems. Students more often go without those legally mandated supports in the city’s poorest and least accessible neighborhoods, where hired specialists are often reluctant to travel.

In response, officials said the department is hiring more service providers, including 700 therapists who were brought on over the past two years. They also noted that the share of services provided this June was about 10 percentage points higher than in 2012, and added that the increase was even greater in some typically under-served districts.

“Although there is more work to do to ensure that every student in every neighborhood is fully served,” Rello-Anselmi said, “we are confident that our progress will continue.”

Dromm, who chairs the council’s education committee, also pointed out a spike in the number of complaints related to special education that teachers made last year, which was revealed in a different Chalkbeat report. The complaints referred to overcrowded classrooms, missing support services, questionable changes to students’ personal learning plans, and other concerns.

No teachers testified at the hearing, but one speaker told the story of her 12-year-old grandson, Travis, who has a disability.

Sharon Laroc said that because the public schools Travis has attended did not give him enough support, he is a seventh-grader who can read perhaps 50 words. Laroc is now searching for a school outside the public system that can meet his needs, she said.

“There are plenty of students out there,” Laroc said, “just like Travis.”

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