In a number of important announcements this fall, New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew has given veteran watchers of 110 Livingston Street real reason to take heart. His call to introduce tough academic standards and his willingness to consider charter schools represent genuine progress. By contrast, unfortunately, his, proposal for revamping the city's $2-billion-dollar special-education system could prove to be a dud.
The plan that Chancellor Crew announced in November for reforming special ed rightly targets the system's most intractable problem: the tens of thousands of students—75 percent of all those in special education—who are herded into separate classrooms under the fuzzy labels of "learning disabled" or "emotionally disturbed" at an annual cost of more than $21,000 each. Like State Education Commissioner Richard Mills, Crew wants to change current funding formulas so that schools can move such mildly disabled students into regular classrooms while providing them with extra support from therapists, counselors, and other specialists. The chancellor's plan has drawn suspiciously little opposition from the interest groups that have scuttled reform in the past, however, and for good reason: it's the very sort of change that they stand a good chance of co-opting.
Consider the powerful plaintiffs in the 18-year-old Jose P. case, the source of the consent decree that still governs special education in the city. They will undoubtedly insist that mildly disabled children who return to regular classrooms remain under court protection. A legal trifle? Not at all. This means that the expensive and time-consuming bean counting that the law mandates for special-ed students—annual Individualized Education Plans, triennial reviews of students' progress, and the like—will continue to apply.
The reform is also unlikely to make much of a dent in the bloated numbers of special-ed teachers, evaluators, and supervisors. True, there would be fewer special-ed classrooms, but the chancellor's plan would simply retrain and redeploy many of these displaced Board of Education employees, sending them into regular classrooms as special aides of one sort or another. This no doubt explains why the education unions have yet to squawk about the possible dismissal of so many dues-paying members.
Worse still, this redeployment of staff into regular classrooms will allow the education establishment to try yet another faddish pedagogical experiment on its pupils. Among educationists these days, including Chancellor Crew, "service delivery" is all the rage: students stay in regular classrooms but receive there the extra therapeutic or remedial "services" that they supposedly need. This may make sense for children with, say, speech impairments or reading problems, but in New York, as teachers and researchers have long recognized, "mildly disabled" is very often just a euphemism for the neglected, poorly socialized, and unruly. For these students, often from disadvantaged and chaotic homes, a classroom constantly disrupted by visiting specialists seems exactly the wrong prescription. Nor does it bode well for the non-disabled students in the class.
Chancellor Crew deserves credit for drawing attention to special ed, and several of his less far-reaching proposals—for instance, making more information available on attendance, academic performance, and graduation rates within special ed—will make a difference. But a few years from now special education in New York is likely to remain much what it is today: an obscenely expensive and bureaucratic system that fails to educate the vast majority of the students entrusted to it.