Facebook Twitter
A teacher helps a student who has cerebral palsy.

A teacher helps a student who has cerebral palsy.

Are students with disabilities getting what they need? Proposed laws would require NYC to reveal more details

Which schools are providing all the right services for students with disabilities? How many pre-K students are going without the therapies they need? How often do students have their services begin only midyear?

Those are just some of the questions the city education department would be required to answer under a suite of bills the City Council is considering.

The legislation, which will be discussed at an oversight hearing Monday and is subject to change, would force the education department to release new details about whether students are receiving all of the services listed on their learning plans.

In one of the biggest changes, the city would have to begin reporting whether individual schools is complying with students’ Individualized Education Programs, also known as IEPs, including what proportion of students are missing out on required services such as speech or physical therapy. That could give parents a new tool to sort between schools as well as offer education officials a sense of where more resources are needed.

“You can’t hold the school system accountable if you don’t know what’s going on,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, which worked with lawmakers to craft the bills.

Over 224,000 students in New York City have a disability, according to city data, almost 20 percent of the city’s students. Under a 2015 law, the education department began releasing annual reports on how many students are not getting all of the services they are entitled to, including whether required evaluations happened within the legally required timeframe.

The latest report suggests the city has made some progress in recent years, but nearly a quarter of students did not receive mandated services, which can range from counseling to various forms of therapy.

“There was a lot of value in getting that information,” said Daniel Dromm, a city councilman who pushed for the 2015 law. “As a result of getting that information we have seen some improvements.”

Yet Dromm and other advocates say the current report doesn’t offer a complete picture since it provides a snapshot at the end of the school year, leaving out services that may have been neglected for months earlier. One of the new bills requires the data to be released three separate times per year.

Dromm has also introduced a bill that would require the education department to track special education services for the city’s pre-K programs. The city does not currently report compliance data for students with disabilities in pre-K and their families often struggle to find programs able to serve them.

Still, getting the education department to provide the data could be tricky. Its special education data system, known as SESIS, is notoriously glitchy and previous releases on special education have come with disclaimers that flaws in the system make the data unreliable. Lawmakers may also face pushback from the education department, which resisted the new requirements set out in the 2015 law, Dromm said.

In addition, one of the bills would require the education department to provide a slew of data on the process families can use to get private school tuition reimbursed from the city. When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, he vowed to make it easier for families to get tuition payments if they could show that their children could not receive an appropriate education at a public school.

But even though the city is paying for more families to attend private school, a cost that has grown to $325 million a year, advocates say the process is still so cumbersome and riddled with delays that students often don’t get the services they are entitled to under federal law.

“We’re shedding a spotlight on the amount of time it takes to get reimbursed,” said Helen Rosenthal, a councilwoman who introduced the bill focusing on tuition reimbursements. “Has it taken two months? Six months? A year?”

Asked about the suite of new bills, Danielle Filson, an education department spokeswoman, said the city has made improvements, including hiring 4,300 more staff members in the last six years and expanding special education programs.

“We’ve made progress, but we know there’s more work to do,” Filson wrote in an email. “We are reviewing the proposed legislation.”