Like you, and perhaps like many other educators, administrators, and parents, I was excited when the New York City Department of Education adopted the Special Education Reform. At that time, I was working with the specialized district in the city, namely District 75, and I was seeing the influx of students whom I felt could have been given a better chance in a regular school, perhaps with supports, perhaps with a self-contained setting. I was appalled at the numbers of students who were referred to District 75 daily. So, when the special education reform became policy, I could not wait to see its results. What I could not anticipate was how quickly I would get to see its unintended consequences.
For starters, what is the special education reform? To answer this question, I am going to be specific to New York City, even though similar versions of this have happened everywhere in the United States. The New York City Department of Education decided the citywide rollout of this policy would start in the Fall of 2012, with a partial rollout as early as 2010. It entailed following the provisions of the law at its core, regarding diligence when applying the LRE (least restrictive environment) to placement of children in special programs. At its heart, the special education reform “is aimed at ensuring that all students with disabilities are educated to high academic standards, in the least restrictive setting that is academically appropriate, and at the same schools they would have access to if they did not have IEPs,” as then-Chancellor Walcott said in a letter.
As I mentioned, this all sounds good. After all, we are following the letter of the law and applying its provisions. Right? That’s what I thought at the beginning. I felt that too many students were being recommended services in a specialized school that could be managed in a regular school. But what happened after the beginning of the rollout (between 2010 and 2012), was that many of the students who would have stayed at their regular schools in self-contained classes (see the continuum of services here), were now being recommended for District 75 schools.
Why was this happening? Many of the psychologists I talked to told me that since their schools were no longer supporting self-contained classes (whether in elementary, middle school, or high school), they felt that the children they were supporting would be better served in a smaller class, even if that meant transferring them to a specialized school. This was the opposite of what the reform intended! I was appalled, but I was even more appalled at the fact that there were close to zero self-contained classes available for these children that needed them.
Over time, and while I was still working with District 75, we noticed that the influx of students who had specialized school recommendations waned a bit, and for me, this meant that perhaps students were receiving more accurate recommendations at the school level. Little did I know what was happening on the other side of the fence. Students in public schools were being recommended classes in their regular public schools, but the services were far from being accurate for the children they were supposed to serve.
Do you want to learn more about the special education reform and its unintended consequences?
See you tomorrow!
Dr. Ingrid Amorini-Klimek.