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N.Y.C. Spec.-Ed. Panel Urges ShiftingMore Students Into General Education

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An independent panel studying New York City's beleaguered special-education programs has recommended big changes--most aimed at shifting more students, services, and money into general education.

The five-member panel, made up of faculty members from New York University, is one of two groups appointed by Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines last December to recommend improvements in special education. Nearly 140,000 of the city's more than one million schoolchildren are in special education.

The proposal, released this month, comes in the wake of longstanding criticism of the program and at a time of big money woes for the city's schools.

Last week, many observers said they supported the plan but questioned how such changes would be made. Mr. Cortines has pledged to have hearings next month for parents, advocates for disabled students, and others to voice their views on the proposal, which the authors call a draft. Based on those hearings, the panel will make revisions and release a final report as early as the fall.

A spokesman for Mr. Cortines said there is no timetable for car~ry~ing out the recommendations.

The second panel, headed by district officials, is expected to release its plan for improving instruction and assessment in the fall.

In a statement, Mr. Cortines said the report was a starting point and acknowledged the system's failures: "The emphasis and the mandates in special education have too frequently been oriented toward issues of procedural compliance. As a consequence, there is far less concern with our overall, systemwide focus: raising standards."

Last summer a report from the city comptroller blasted the school system for not having a comprehensive policy for evaluating the programs' effectiveness. (See Education Week, 7/13/94.)

Top-to-Bottom Reform

The new report's underlying goal is to move more resources and supports--and more students--into general education, Norm Fruchter, one of the report's authors and a co-director of N.Y.U.'s Institute for Education and Social Policy, said last week in an interview. The idea is to reduce the number of referrals to special education; many observers have criticized the system for identifying too many children as needing special education.

Too often, students are placed in special-education programs because general education does not have the resources to accommodate them, Mr. Fruchter said.

"As you reduce resources for general education, you increase the stress on special education. You can't keep them separate," he said.

New York City has one of the most segregated special-education systems in the country: More than 60 percent of disabled students ages 6 to 11 attend separate classes. The national average is 19.8 percent, the report says.

The panel does not recommend abolishing separate classes or schools for special education. It envisions fewer children needing such placements and for less of the school day, Mr. Fruchter said.

The report outlines 14 major recommendations, which include decentralizing the special-education administration, requiring schools to develop instructional and assessment plans for all at-risk students, creating an accountability and quality-control body, and revamping state funding formulas to remove the incentives that schools have for placing children in more restrictive settings.

Many of the report's recommendations are in line with legislative changes the city's board of education is seeking in the state capital, said Stephen K. Allinger, a lobbyist for the board.

Mr. Fruchter emphasized that the reforms should be taken on gradually, over a five-year period. And while the recommendations may save money, the report urges that any savings be plowed back into the school system.

Political Will and Dollars

Mr. Cortines and many of his predecessors have attempted to reform special education before and failed, observers noted last week. But Mr. Fruchter said the current fiscal crisis may offer an opportunity to take more risks.

That crisis has sparked fears that disabled students who had fared poorly in the mainstream will be dumped back there without the needed supports in the name of budget savings, some education advocates said last week.

The city's public schools are facing $750 million to $1 billion in cuts for fiscal 1996. Special education consumes nearly a quarter--roughly $1.7 billion--of the district's $7.5 billion budget.

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