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With Federal Funding Dwindling, Special Services Programs Struggle to Support Students

Michael Nutter

July 18, 2018

As funding for special education services dries up, diligent data reporting has become increasingly important for districts across the country.

In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a landmark case decided in March 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the educational program of a student with a learning-impairing disability “must be appropriately ambitious in light of [their] circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.”

This decision clearly represents an important step in the right direction — yet many students with learning-impairing disabilities today have yet to see substantive changes in their day-to-day lives.

That’s largely because the federal government currently covers only 14% of public schools’ special education costs, a far cry from the 40% Congress promised when it passed IDEA in 1975. As a result, special services programs in districts across the country are struggling to make good on the promises outlined in IDEA and confirmed by Endrew F. v. Douglas County. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the City School District of the City of New York, the nation’s largest public school system.

Vouchers Go Unused in the Bronx

Despite spending $3.7 billion on classroom education for students with special needs last year, New York City schools only delivered the full slate of recommended services to roughly 73% of its students with individualized education programs (IEPs). An additional 23% of students with IEPs received “partial services,” while around 4% didn’t receive any of the services to which they were legally entitled.

These shortcomings are particularly pronounced in high-poverty areas like the South Bronx, where local schools often don’t have the resources to hire on-site Special Services providers. Families of students with IEPs in such districts are given vouchers to cover the cost of hiring private providers outside of school. Unfortunately, the supply of special services providers in these areas tends to be quite low, and as a result the vouchers go unused and the students don’t get the assistance they need.

As the New York Times reported in July 2017, “In Community School District 8, in the Southeast Bronx, 91% of the 129 vouchers issued in 2015-2016 went unused.” While this 9% usage rate was something of an outlier, the Bronx’s 37% boroughwide usage rate still leaves a lot to be desired.

Pangs of New York

Insufficient access to Special Services has been a problem in the Big Apple for years, but in 2011, it was made even worse by a scandal surrounding the management of IEP data, the effects of which are still felt today.

At the start of decade, New York City schools poured nearly $70 million into the creation of a Special Education Student Information System (SESIS) designed to manage the tracking and administration of the district’s tens of thousands of IEPs. Unfortunately, administrators started receiving user complaints almost as soon as the SESIS was unveiled prior to the 2011-2012 academic year.

For example, according to a 2017 report issued by the New York City Department of Education, “One category of user queries related to special education programmatic services on IEPs…failed about 800,000 times a day.” In fact, the SESIS caused so many problems that the district ended up having to fork over tens of millions of dollars in backpay to compensate teachers for the additional recordkeeping they’d been forced to do outside of work hours to offset the system’s failures.

Getting to the Heart of it All

Of course, issues like these are by no means isolated to New York City, or even to large urban districts. As we’ve written about before, the Ohio Department of Education received more than 170 formal complaints from families of students with learning-impairing disabilities during the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years — the highest number of complaints since 2008-2009.

Ultimately, the only way for a district of any size and configuration to ensure that it satisfies its obligations to special education students (as dictated by Endrew F.) is to avoid the data disasters like those suffered by New York City’s SESIS.

At Vinson, we recognize the importance of accurate, reliable data reporting, and the Special Services Module of our CheckPoint EMIS platform is carefully crafted to help districts track, format, and report their IEPs. With the latest Ohio state budget either freezing or cutting funding for hundreds of districts across the state, such diligent data management has never been more critical.

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