Carmen Alvarez Testifies on Special Education Before the City Council
Thank you for the opportunity to present our views about the current state of special education in New York City. We are here because you listened to the “stories” of parents in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island who tried to navigate the special education bureaucracy in New York City to secure supports and services for their children. We are here because you read about the hundreds of parents who stood in line for days in the Bronx when school opened last September attempting to secure placements and the children who ride overcrowded busses, some of which routinely arrive late and leave early because of the length of the new bus routes. We are grateful that there are elected officials like you who treat the voices of the parents and school personnel with respect and who take on the responsibility for “righting” the system when things go very wrong.
As you may know, my office answers questions and attempts to resolve problems and complaints concerning special education. Most of these questions, problems and complaints are submitted on an online special education complaint form. While the majority of complaints are submitted by members, the services of my office are open to parents. Every year we receive and attempt to resolve hundreds of complaints. These complaints concern a variety of issues including: Failure to provide copies of the Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to the teachers and service providers responsible for implementing them; Teachers who are required to sign IEPs attesting to their participation in meetings they did not attend; Teachers who are told they cannot request that students be evaluated for special education or speak to parents about their concerns that a child may need special education services; Failure to properly staff collaborative team teaching classes; Failure to hire paraprofessionals for students who are recommended to receive one on one paraprofessional support; Refusal to hire substitutes for special education teachers who are on longterm leaves of absence; Routine under-servicing of students recommended to receive occupational and physical therapy in District 75; Failure to provide services in a separate location in accordance with IEP mandates.
This year, with the help of Linda Wernikoff, the staff of the Office of School Improvement and the Integrated Service Centers, we have been able to address most of the complaints we have received. But the sheer volume of complaints demonstrates that there are significant systemic issues. These issues, in my view, can be traced to several factors, including: the elimination of special education expertise at the school level as a result of the 2003 reorganization; the “flexibility” given to principals regarding use of special education funds; the failure to report data regularly, in a user-friendly format and publicly regarding delivery of special education services; and the failure to hold schools accountable for implementing IEPs.
The Chancellor recently announced that he is carrying out another reorganization of special education in New York City. What will it take for our members, parents, advocates, disability group representatives and other stakeholders to trust that the reorganization will make the provision of special education “better and more effective” not just “more efficient” or less costly?
We need you, members of the City Council’s Education Committee, to tell the Chancellor that you expect to engage the entire special education community in this reorganization. Let’s make sure that this reorganization works, not just to cut costs, but to build community and improve outcomes for children with disabilities.
I will conclude by offering my thoughts on the core principles that should guide this reorganization: the needs of children with special needs and their families must truly be our first priority; school personnel must have the opportunity to freely discuss children’s needs, unconstrained by fears of retaliation and disciplinary action; schools must be held accountable for complying with special education laws and regulations and fully implementing children’s IEPs; school personnel must have the knowledge, tools, and time—including time to collaborate with other professionals—to do their jobs effectively; schools must be accountable for using special education funds to support instruction and services for students with disabilities; quality transition planning must take place for every child with a disability beginning in middle schools and reviewed annually; the expectation for all students with disabilities who participate in regular assessments—with or without accommodations—must be a “real” diploma that will allow them secure meaningful employment, live independently and participate in our democracy. It’s a long list. But it is all doable and we should expect no less. #
Carmen Alvarez is the Vice President for Special Education for the United Federation of Teachers.