Playing the Special Education Card

by Paul O'Neill

The recent New York state budget may have largely settled the tug of war between Mayor de Blasio and co-locating charter schools that has been playing out in New York over the last month or so, but an unpleasant and lingering issue still needs to be addressed – the disingenuous way that students with disabilities were dragged into the fight.

Let’s roll back the calendar by a few weeks. Mayor de Blasio wanted to cut back on the favored treatment charters received under the Bloomberg administration, including receiving space in district school buildings at no cost.  In denying space to an expanding Success Academy charter school, the Mayor and Schools Chancellor Farina have both repeatedly said that special education students would be adversely affected by allowing the co-location of this school as planned by Mayor Bloomberg.  That sounds worrisome – the needs of vulnerable students with disabilities should surely be a serious concern.

But was that really the case? When you drill down for more information about the projected impact on students with disabilities, there is very little to see.  In a television interview on Fox 5, Chancellor Farina said that in order to make room for charter school students, the city “would have had to displace the kids who are presently there, all of which are high need kids.” But diligence by the website ny.chalkbeat.org revealed that, according to the educational impact statement for the building in question, no students currently in the special education program would have been removed if the charter school moved in next year.  When called out on this, Department of Education spokesmen indicated instead that future special education enrollment would be impacted by placing a charter school there.  Success Academy says that there would be no such negative impact.  Regardless, the Chancellor and the Mayor seem guilty of exaggerating the impact on kids with disabilities, playing the special education card, so to speak, in order to ratchet up anxieties and justify their actions, perhaps even misrepresenting the impact of a controversial policy choice on students with disabilities in the hopes of making it more palatable to the public. This sort of behavior is inappropriate and should be called out in New York and wherever else it occurs.  There have been recent instances of similar misdirection in other districts, such as Los Angeles, where the district denied charter renewal to two schools solely because of disingenuous special education concerns that were really a smokescreen for a battle over fees.  Students with disabilities are indeed at risk for academic failure and the decisions by schools, authorizers, districts and state education authorities that threaten their well-being should be carefully considered. 

The reality is that students with disabilities are quite vulnerable to organizational changes within districts and schools and this issue deserves serious attention. Charter schools in New YorkCity already serve more than 6,300 students with disabilities, many of them co-located in buildings with district schools.  In New York, the law requires that charter schools and districts work together to identify and meet the needs of students with disabilities.  This is challenging work and it is being done collaboratively by district and charter school special education professionals.   Surely more can be accomplished and the needs of students with disabilities can be more fully and consistently served, but for that to happen, the distraction of political misdirection and posturing has to stop.  It imposes a false divide between charter and district educators whose joint focus should be on addressing the real challenges we face in serving the city’s most vulnerable children.