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The Dead Canary: The Problems Within NYC’s Special Education System Signify Global Dysfunction

Fifteen years ago when I began my journey as an education advocate, I was in it for myself. More specifically, for my son Jonah, who has multiple disabilities stemming from a genetic mutation called Fragile X Syndrome. I saw my quest as securing a high-quality seat for my boy in a school that would provide him with access to intensive speech and occupational therapy, as well as an academic program that would maximize his learning.

At the time my district’s special education department  was, well, dysfunctional. While my son attended a private out-of-district placement at the district’s expense, I knew that he was also entitled to participation in his zoned school’s clubs and activities and that he had the right to be treated as a member of the community. I knew this because I had studied up on the federal law called IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is 43 years old this week.

And so I started going to my local school board meetings, first to listen and learn, and then to testify to the Board about what I saw as deficiencies in the special education department which, according to IDEA,  requires my district to provide my child with a “free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment (LRE).

Here’s what I learned: IDEA or not, special education is the canary in the coalmine. By this I mean that, in most cases,  dysfunction in this department signifies global dysfunction. Just like miners once carried caged canaries to detect warning signs of dangerous levels of methane or carbon monoxide, when special education departments show signs of distress, it often means that the system as a whole is in danger.

And there’s no better example of this than New York City Public Schools.

Consider these recent news stories, all from within the last few weeks.

From the New York Times:

T.J. is one of more than 200,000 students in New York City public schools classified as having a disability, which can be anything from mild dyslexia to a complex physical disorder. These students are a small city unto themselves, and the special education system that serves them is awash in delays, misinformation and confusion.

From NY1:

[T]he city education department has failed, for months, to pay many of the therapists, nurses, and teachers it contracts with to serve some of the 200,000 special education students in New York City.”

From the NY Post:

A hearing over whether or not the Department of Education should cover the schooling costs of a severely disabled 13-year-old girl devolved into a screaming match

From the Daily News:

Kids with disabilities are forced to use the back door at their schools, a Brooklyn councilman charged Wednesday — and a new bill would require the city to report on the controversial practice. “It sends a horrible message and it’s just plain wrong for children to be required to use a separate door to enter a building,” said Tryeger, a former teacher who’s chairman of the City Council Education Committee. “This is about respect and dignity for students who have historically been marginalized in our schools.”

From City Limits (on District 75, which encompasses NYC’s special education schools and is plagued by high rates of teacher absenteeism and lack of staff):

“When we talk about equality when it comes to students with disabilities, it has a limit,” she says. “We just don’t have enough. So students come in, and it should be available, but the reality is that there isn’t enough.”

Consider these ways that NYC’s special education system violates IDEA by cheating children out of mandated services as a warning sign: the canary in the coalmine. The poisoned bird is not a circumscribed event but a sign of global decay, just like in my local district. This systemic dysfunction  was revealed last week when Eliza Shapiro in the NY Times wrote that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal Schools Program — meant as a rebuke to former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s school reform plan that closed failing schools, opened smaller new ones, and expanded charters  — had failed to produce meaningful improvement. In some cases, student academic growth decreased.

Shapiro writes, “after sending thousands of children into classrooms that staff members suspected were doomed from the start, the administration appears ready to give up on Renewal. Its cost: $773 million by the end of this school year.”


[I]n interviews with nine city staff members who worked on Renewal, all said it was clear within the first year that the program was veering off track. The staff members requested anonymity because they were still working with the city and were not authorized to speak or they did not want to jeopardize future employment.

Principals interviewed said confusing lines of authority meant they often did not know who their bosses were, which in turn left teachers puzzled. Department of Education officials suggested making academic goals easier to reach so more schools could be called a success, an internal memo showed. Staff members hesitated to close at least one school to avoid political backlash.

As my husband and I learned 15 years ago, the obstacles we encountered with Jonah’s access to opportunities were a symptom of district-wide disease, and in some cases a reflection of problems at the state and national level.  (That’s why I ended up on the school board, starting writing my NJ blog, and became a full-time advocate for public school choice and accountability.)

And, correspondingly, the problems encountered by children with disabilities in the NYC Public Schools point to problems encountered by neuro-typical children, especially those who attend schools that, despite the all the money spend, were not “renewed.” Again, Shapiro:

While Renewal provided social supports that are often crucial for low-income children and families, most research has shown that schools do not transform without fundamental changes aimed directly at academic improvement. Those measures have included replacing teachers and principals, integrating schools racially and socioeconomically, or converting schools into charter schools.

The canary is dead. The question is this: what will happen now? Will the Mayor and Commissioner have the fortitude to concede that throwing money at failing schools without meaningful change is bad for kids? That the well-being of students must take precedence over politics? That efforts to conceal lack of progress will backfire? That former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was dead-on when he built his reforms  on the premise that “the schools belonged to the children”? That meaningful school improvement requires fundamental change that may irk politicians and union leaders?

For the children with disabilities deprived of mandated services, there’s the remedy of litigating through IDEA. But for the primarily low-income children of color who attend these “Renewal Schools,” all they have is an avian corpse. New York City Public Schools needs a rapid detox and I’m just not sure the leadership is equipped with what it takes to put children over politics.

I hope I’m wrong.

What do you think?

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