NYC’s Special Education Crisis, Where 1 in 4 Families Doesn’t Receive Guaranteed Services and Students Are Forced to Wait 60 Days (or More) for IEP Meetings

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Nearly 50,000 New York City students were denied special education services to which they were legally entitled in the 2016–17 school year. That means that more than one-quarter of city children who were assigned specialized programs didn’t take part in them.

The finding comes from the city Department of Education’s annual report on special education, which was instituted by the City Council two years ago in the wake of mass complaints from parents and advocacy groups.

Individualized Educational Programs, or IEPs, are federally required documents that specify mandated services for students dealing with a range of learning impediments, from deafness to ADHD to autism. The city’s database for tracking the plans — known as the Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS — has been under fire since its unveiling in 2011 for repeated technological mishaps that have caused eligible children to go without necessary resources.

Some 180,000 of New York City’s 1.1 million public school students have IEPs. Of those, 73 percent are now “fully receiving” their recommended services, while 23 percent are “partially” receiving services and 4 percent are receiving none at all, according to the report. Overall, that represents a 14 percent increase from the district’s performance in 2015–16. But local special education advocacy groups say that the number is still far too low.

Source: New York City Department of Education

“We’re glad to see that the percentage of students fully receiving special education services increased from last year, but 48,000 students with disabilities are still going without special education services they’re entitled to receive under the law,” said Randi Levine, policy coordinator for Advocates for Children of New York.

In the report, the department credits the improvement to a review conducted over the course of the past school year, during which DOE officials gave schools weekly feedback on cases where students weren’t offered programming according to their IEP or where information wasn’t entered correctly into the Special Education Student Information System.

That failure in data collection and tracking has gradually become a scandal in recent years. As the department transitioned from paper IEPs to digital records, the computerized information system was intended to give educators and administrators greater access to critical student data. But according to a report issued in May 2017, the effort was hampered with glitches from the start, including one class of user inquiries that failed 800,000 times every day. Citing long wait times and records that permitted access to only one user at a time, one teacher referred to the database as a “million-dollar Frankenstein” and “a horror.”

Partly in response to those testimonials, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James sued the department in 2016, arguing that the program’s failures had cost New York over $350 million in Medicaid payments. The city is entitled to the money as reimbursement for meeting the education needs of disabled children who are eligible for the government-funded health coverage.

Although observers acknowledge the necessity of an electronic IEP database and have praised the system’s improved performance, some say that the department’s most recent report, released in November, shows that nowhere near enough progress has been made.

“I don’t see anything good,” said Mark Alter, professor of educational psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “There are two levels to why I find this report disturbing. One, why are we still out of compliance with so many kids? And two, there’s an underlying assumption that we tend not to talk about: For the kids who are getting the services, are appropriate decisions being made?”

Beyond the sheer number of students receiving partial or no accommodations for their special needs, Alter questioned the quality and timeliness of services. For example, over 4,500 students had to wait more than 60 days — roughly one-fifth of a 10-month school year — for an IEP meeting after an initial evaluation during the 2016–17 school year. An interim of that length seriously threatens learning, Alter warned, adding that it “raises the question of whether these kids are receiving an appropriate education.”

While it’s disappointing that the timeliness of IEP meetings hasn’t really improved, Levine said, the numbers are true to the experience of her organization.

“We get calls every day from families who are struggling to get their children the evaluations they need, the IEP meetings they need, and ultimately the services and special education instruction they need,” she said.

Alter was a graduate student when the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, guaranteeing a “free appropriate public education” to all students with disabilities. He said he is shocked that even decades later, New York is still failing to fulfill its commitments under the law’s provisions.

“It’s very upsetting and continues to be upsetting. We’re still out of compliance, which means a lot of kids are not getting services, at least on paper, that they’re entitled to,” Alter said. “And why does this problem still persist?”

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