ALBANY — New York lags behind many other states in the delivery of special education services, and dozens of school districts on Long Island and elsewhere need to boost student achievement in this area, state education officials declared Monday.
The U.S. Department of Education has deemed New York a “state in need of assistance” because of subpar services and the low performance of students with disabilities. While the designation is long-standing, the state Board of Regents set aside two hours at its monthly meeting Monday to underscore the seriousness of the situation.
Forty-four school systems statewide, including Central Islip, Glen Cove and Hempstead on the Island, have been identified as falling short in the area of special education, either in delivery of services, scholastic results or both, state authorities said. Such districts will be required to come up with improvement plans — a common state practice that often has yielded limited successes in the past.
“It’s a critical kind of situation,” said Regent Betty Rosa of the Bronx, chancellor of the board, who was unanimously re-elected to the post Monday by her colleagues.
National policy on special education is governed largely by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, adopted by Congress under a different name in 1975. For the past five years, the federal government has been empowered to require states to draft corrective plans or to spend portions of their federal IDEA funding in designated ways if they fall short in certain areas, such as failing to ensure that local districts provide adequate help to disabled students within set time limits.
The Regents’ comments followed a briefing by state Education Department officials, who said New York State had carried the federal designation of needing assistance for about 10 years.
“It’s been years,” said another board member, Catherine Collins of Buffalo. “Meanwhile, things have just deteriorated.”
However, Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Nassau and Suffolk counties on the board, noted that many districts in the two-county region have well-funded special education programs that serve as a draw for home buyers seeking quality instruction for their children.
A common feature of such programs is “inclusionary” classes that combine both students with disabilities and the non-disabled, typically under the instructional guidance of two full-time teachers. Tilles said this approach often has the effect of helping non-disabled students understand the needs of the disabled, lessening the frequency of bullying.
“That has ramifications not only in schools, but for life,” Tilles said.
Twenty-one states currently meet federal standards, according to the U.S. Education Department.
Six states have been designated as failing to meet requirements for one year. Twenty-two states, including New York, have been found to fall below requirements for two years or more. Michigan and the District of Columbia have been placed in the more serious category of needing federal intervention.
States, in turn, determine which local districts are categorized either as needing assistance or needing intervention.
The Hempstead district has been rated as needing intervention for nine years. Regina Armstrong, the system’s acting superintendent, said that two local elementary schools had received low ratings because special education programs there were not improving quickly enough.
“However, to be clear, the district is not moving backwards, but is working diligently to pick up the rate of progress in regard to the two special education programs,” Armstrong said. “This will certainly take sustained time and effort to reach ultimate success, but we are dedicated to increasing the rate of progress.”
Howard Koenig, the superintendent in Central Islip, which has been listed as needing intervention for two years, said he had not been briefed specifically on the special education situation by state officials who have recently consulted with him on other issues. Koenig added that he would withhold comment until such a briefing occurs.
A public relations representative for the Glen Cove district, reached late in the afternoon, said she had tried to contact the district but had not heard back.
Enrollment in special education
Education experts said special education enrollments in New York state have inched up in recent years after levelling out at about 12 percent of the public school population a decade ago.
Statewide, 454,844 students were in special education during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent period for which state Education Department data are available. That represented 17 percent of the total school population.
Nassau County enrolled 25,976 of those students, or 13 percent of its school population, in special education that year.
Suffolk County enrolled 35,555 students, or 15 percent of its school population, in such programs that year.