A Bright IDEA:
Improving Special Education in New York City Schools
By Michael Best
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that students with disabilities have access to public schools, so that they can be educated with and receive the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled peers. Until the 1970s, when Congress passed the first version of what is now IDEA, students with disabilities were excluded from public schools or sat idly in classrooms, learning little or nothing. Today, school districts across the country devote substantial resources to providing education and services to disabled children — and none more than New York City, which last year spent roughly $4.8 billion on special education.
But we’re nowhere near where we need to be, in part because of the way schools and courts have approached IDEA. The law’s mandates pertain solely to educational inputs (what services a child should receive), encouraging schools to focus on compliance with legal requirements rather than on how best to educate an individual child. Furthermore, the courts have tended to favor the aspects of the law that allow parents to sue school districts rather than those that promote cooperation between parents and schools. Last year, in a case called Forest Grove, the Supreme Court ruled that parents can sue school districts for private school tuition even if the parents have not tried a public school placement.
The consequences have little to do with IDEA’s goals. Schools often treat children as categories or classifications, instead of making adjustments that will improve their students’ achievement. And the number of parents who sue to force the public to pay for their children to attend private schools for children with disabilities has increased dramatically, draining resources from public schools.
Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein, New York City has emphasized student achievement, resulting in more children with disabilities meeting standards on state math and reading tests and in more of them graduating. And, in contrast to lawsuits over private school tuition, the number of placements in inclusion settings is at an all-time high. Despite our progress, however, achievement levels for students with disabilities are nowhere near where anyone wants them to be.
So over the next two years, beginning with roughly 200 schools this fall, we will phase in a plan that will allow the overwhelming majority of children with disabilities to attend their zoned schools like other children; give schools scheduling and instructional flexibility to design programs to meet the needs of these students; create more collaboration with parents; and hold schools more accountable for helping children meet long-term goals such as high school graduation, college, or employment.
Despite the trends in IDEA law, New York City will make special education about helping students learn and succeed in the public schools. #
Michael Best is the general counsel of the New York City Department of Education.