The New York City school board took the first step last week toward overhauling special education in the nation’s largest school system.
In a 6-0 vote, board members approved a plan to transfer responsibility for overseeing student-evaluation and -placement decisions from the central board of education to subdistrict superintendents and school principals. Such a move, city and school officials said, will better align assessment and placement with instruction and will improve accountability.
The change was one of several recommendations to streamline special education in the 1.1 million-student district from a task force appointed by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The task force, led by Peter J. Powers, a former first deputy mayor, included Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew. Currently roughly 161,000 New York City students receive special education, accounting for $2.5 billion of the district’s more than $9 billion budget.
Echoing concerns voiced in recent years, the task force concluded that too many students are assigned to special education when their needs could be met in regular classrooms. Many students enrolled in special education do not meet the state’s criteria for classification as disabled, the task force found. (“Panel Urges More Spec.-Ed. Students, Money Go To Regular Classes,” Jan. 10, 1996.)
“Our past practice of unnecessarily placing these students in special education was, to be blunt, cruel. It must and will end,” Mr. Giuliani said in a statement before the board vote.
District and city officials said they do not have an estimate of how much money might be saved under the task force plan to return as many students as possible to general education over the next two years. But they pledged to plow any savings back into the schools to help students in special education and to beef up programs for at-risk students in general education.
While many the panel’s recommendations have been welcomed, a still-pending proposal to privatize student evaluations by using outside contractors has drawn fire from the United Federation of Teachers and advocates for children with disabilities. More than 3,000 evaluators--social workers, school psychologists, and specially trained teachers--now work for the school board. Their jobs include assessing children referred by teachers and parents to decide whether the students are eligible for special education and what kind of programs they should be placed in.
The evaluators have been criticized as processing too few cases and being too quick to place children, particularly those from minority groups, in special education.
While some districts elsewhere have opted for outside evaluators, such a decision in the New York City school system, a particularly large and complex district, should be approached cautiously, said Alex Thomas, the president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, Md.
Galen D. Kirkland, the executive director of New York City-based Advocates for Children, said he feared that private contractors would feel pressure to reduce the number of children in special education, regardless of whether that was best for the students.
“This is a radical change,” Mr. Kirkland said. “And it’s not clear this is the answer.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 24, 1998 edition of Education Week as New York City Board Moves To Revamp Special Education