Bill Would Require N.Y.C. To Comply With Limits On Special Ed. Class Sizes
New York City school officials would have to set up more classes for their special education students next fall, under newly passed legislation that requires the district to start complying with state class-size limits.
In recent negotiations over the state budget, legislators decided against renewing a state law passed in 1995 that granted the city school system permission to enroll 20 percent more students in special education classes than state regulations allow. The initial law was for three years but has already been extended twice, for one year each time.
A similar law, also passed that year, gave the same leeway to the districts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers, for a five-year period. That law, which is set to expire this summer, would be extended for one more year under the budget package now before Gov. George E. Pataki.
As justification for relaxing the enrollment restrictions five years ago, officials in the state's "Big Five" urban school systems argued that absenteeism in their special education classes had the effect of lowering average daily class sizes to the state limit—a figure that varies depending on students' disabilities. The idea was that districts could save money without actually placing disabled youngsters in classrooms with more students than the state allowed.
But Assemblyman Steven Sanders, a Democrat who chairs the lower chamber's education committee, said that his review of figures from the state education department convinced him that absenteeism has not been sufficient to bring class sizes down to the required levels. For that reason, Mr. Sanders said, he concluded that the practice of "overbooking" special education classes was no longer justified. "This should not be a surprise for New York City because we indicated for the last two years that we were ending the overbooking," he added.
Mr. Sanders said lawmakers agreed to the one-year extension for the other four districts to give them time to prepare for the change. But he said he would oppose any further extensions.
A Management Tool
A representative of the New York State School Boards Association defended the current class-size exemptions, saying that slightly larger classes for special education students are not necessarily detrimental.
"We feel this is a management tool, and districts need to be able to have this flexibility," said Barbara Bradley, a spokeswoman for the organization.
Stephen K. Allinger, the executive director of intergovernmental affairs for the 1.1 million-student New York City schools, also said in an interview that the practice of overenrolling special education classes was an effective use of the district's resources. But if the measure becomes law, city school officials will find a way to comply with the class-size requirements, he said.
"We'll have to cope," Mr. Allinger said.
If the district did otherwise, its special education aid could be affected, Assemblyman Sanders said. Although he said he expects the district to comply with the requirements, he added that if it failed to do so, "the city would run the risk of losing millions of dollars of state aid." The practice of overenrolling students in special education classes has resulted in higher pupil-teacher ratios and less individualized attention, said Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers' union.
"Far from lowering class sizes, we wound up living with increased class sizes that came from the overbooking," he said. And Jill Chaifetz, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, a New York City-based organization that works in behalf of special education students, said that lower class sizes were needed to help such students meet rising academic standards.
"There is no reason why this has ever been acceptable," she said of the class-size exemptions.
Vol. 19, Issue 37, Page 26