New York City plans fundamental changes to the way children needing special education services will be educated, planning to move all but the most disabled students into regular schools by 2011. There has always been a tension between having children with special learning needs educated in regular school settings and having them educated in more restrictive settings. There are real benefits -- and detriments -- to both approaches.
For some children, a school or class focused on those with special learning needs can provide the kind of support that children who struggle with learning need to succeed. But these special settings can also become dumping grounds for children who are difficult to educate in regular settings or whose issues cause them to be disruptive in class. Complicating the entire situation are the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the New York State Education Law, which both require that children receive an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.
In a report on this issue in yesterday's New York Times, a number of the details of this new approach were still undetermined. For example, will the students now to be educated in regular schools be part of regular classes, or will they generally be placed in separate classes in that school? The implication is that principals will have the ability to decide how to provide services for these students within their schools, but the requirements of the IDEA will undoubtedly limit the principals' discretion.
The City denies that this change is financially motivated, but spending on special education in New York City is almost $5 billion annually, including tuition at private schools.
The Times' article quotes Kim Sweet, the Executive Director of the excellent organization Advocates for Children as noting, "...they’re talking about changing the culture of all the schools in the city so that they can serve students that many of them were previously shipping out.This could easily fall flat if it’s not done right. If kids are stuck in schools that don’t have the capacity to serve them and are denied requests to move elsewhere, that would be falling worse than flat." We agree with Ms. Sweet and will continue to follow this issue.