One of my four children has multiple disabilities because of a genetic mutation called Fragile X Syndrome and, while we’ve had disputes with our local school district, Jonah’s assorted services—speech and occupational therapy, modified course content and instruction, vocational training—always take place during the school day.
Not so in one of the poorest sections of the Bronx—where half the population lives below the poverty line, the vast majority of residents never finished high school, most households are headed by single parents, and the neighborhood’s primary claim to fame is a documentary series on HBO called “Hookers at the Point.”
I’m speaking, of course, of Hunts Point.
Talk about the haves and the have-nots. If you live in a more prosperous part of New York City, your child’s Individualized Education Plan, like my child’s, includes necessary services provided by the school during the school day.
But in Hunts Point, as well as two other neighborhoods in District 8, Throgs Neck and Soundview, those necessary services that the school, by law, must provide to your child are not available from the school during the school day. Instead, parents, likely single and poor, are given “vouchers” and left on their own to procure services after school and on weekends.
Families face a number of barriers to using the vouchers: They often struggle to find providers in their neighborhoods, have difficulty arranging for transportation and getting reimbursed to send their children elsewhere, or simply can’t find providers who are responsive.
In part because of those challenges, an attorney who helped bring the lawsuit said the city can’t simply offer a voucher to fulfill its obligation to provide special education services.
“The DOE has to ensure that students actually get [services],” said Seth Packrone, a lawyer at Disability Rights Advocates, which contributed to the public advocate’s report. “They can’t just issue a voucher and then step away.”
But the DOE does step away. And the results are clear: Of the 9,164 vouchers issued across the city, half of them went unused. In District 8, which includes Hunts Point, 91 percent of vouchers were never redeemed. The New York Times reports that the Department of Education exercises neither follow-up nor oversight.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
Let’s make this real.
You, a single mom, live in Hunts Point and your 11-year-old son has developmental delays in speech, language processing, and fine motor skills that qualify him for special education services. He attends The Hunts Point School, M.S. 424, which is your neighborhood middle school (where, by the way, 6.3 percent of students reach proficiency in language arts, 4.3 percent of students reach proficiency in math and yet, miraculously, 96 percent pass their classes).
You work two part-time jobs to stay afloat and English isn’t your first language—just like 27% of Hunts Points’ students. Every year you faithfully attend your child’s IEP meeting and sign off on a document that says that every week your boy will receive two 30-minute sessions of speech and one 30-minute session of occupational therapy, as well as a specialized reading program that will be provided by the school. (Being generous here.)
Where does that leave you and your child?
With a “voucher”—one that shoulders you with the burden of finding speech and occupational therapists who will see your child three times a week after school or on weekends. Yet, according to the class action lawsuit, many of the providers refuse to go to Hunts Point. Some don’t even accept vouchers.
The result is inevitable: Many children in Hunts Point, almost all poor and of color, are deprived of services necessary to address delays that impede their academic progress.
The quality of provision of special education services is often compared to the “canary in the coalmine,” an early warning sign of systemic failure. In the case of the de Blasio Administration’s voucher remedy for understaffing and under-serving children with special needs, the canary is dead.