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Special education revamp: questions, few answers

The Education Committee of the New York City Council convened a hearing yesterday on the DOE's nascent reorganization of special education. It's the third planned reorganization of special ed since Bloomberg-Klein's Children First initiative and according to Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children (AFC), the structure implemented in 2002 "has been wiped out and rebuilt twice in the past seven years."

DOE representatives Deputy Chancellor Marcia Lyles, District 75 Superintendent Bonnie Brown and Executive Director for Special Education Initiatives Linda Wernikoff spoke of steady, incremental progress (while acknowledging profound shortfalls, both academic and procedural). Advocates from the United Federation of Teachers, the ARISE coalition, Parents for Inclusive Education (PIE) and AFC, among others, steadily chipped away at the good-news testimony from the DOE, describing problems in communication, transportation, the provision of mandated special services, enrollment, and outright discrimination against children with special needs and their families.

Even as the DOE was promoting one version of reality, advocates proposed another, and council members seemed caught in the middle, trying to understand basic processes -- how a child gets evaluated, what is an IEP (individualized education program) -- while seeking answers to questions brought by constituents in their districts. No one could deny the basic facts on the ground: Of high-school students with IEPs, fewer than one in five graduate within four years (about one in four graduate after five years). And the IEP "diploma" many students earn essentially functions as a certificate of attendance and confers zero access to post-secondary or career options like college, the military, or technical training, prompting committee chair Robert Jackson to ask, "So why do we call it a diploma?"

The pending review (and likely restructuring) of special education, and its oversight by Garth Harries, troubled many advocates present, who raised pointed questions of political expediency, economic necessity, and Harries' preparedness for the job. (A lawyer and MBA, Harries has no special education expertise.) Harries' responsibilities commence next week, according to Lyles. No end date was made public for a report or preliminary recommendations.

No matter how long the process may take, children and families need and deserve ongoing guidance. Families with questions can explore Insideschools resources, DOE information, or call 311 and ask for the Special Education Call Center, which has resolved more than 15,000 special ed questions since its inception in 2007, according to DOE's Linda Wernikoff.

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