As more light is shed on the education of students with special needs in New York City charter schools, it has become increasingly evident that the New York City Department of Education [NYC DoE] has flouted the local Freedom of Information Law in an effort to keep from the public view not just a full and accurate picture of the state of Special Education in charter schools, but also its own egregious failure to provide the most minimal oversight in that field.
Here is what we now know. In fall 2009, when the UFT started to compile and analyze the information which provided the basis for our report, Separate and Unequal: The Failure of New York City Charter Schools to Serve the City’s Neediest Students, we discovered that the most important data on Special Education in NYC charter schools had never been published and was not in the public realm. To acquire that missing data, we filed a Freedom of Information [FOIL] request with the NYC DoE on 10 December 2009. We asked for copies of the invoices and end-of-the-year reconciliation reports submitted to the NYC DoE by 64 NYC charter schools during 2007-09.* In those documents, charter schools report the numbers of students with special needs they educate, together with the level of disability and need of those students — those taught in a self-contained classrooms which contain only students with special needs, those taught in collaborative team teaching classrooms which combine general education and special education students, and those who received related services, such as counseling, outside of the classroom. The information from those invoices should be used to verify the amount of payments to NYC charter schools for the education of students with special needs.
The DoE has responded to our FOIL request with an ongoing series of form letters. In these letters, the attorney in charge of FOIL requests, Joseph Baranello, declares in tortured syntax that the DoE needs more time to meet the request “due to the volume and complexity of requests we receive and process and of your request in particular, limited resources, and to determine whether any records or portions thereof will be subject to redactions permitted under Public Officers Law §87(2).” On a regular basis, UFT counsel has received such letters from Baranello on our request of more than six months ago, each promising in turn that the DoE would provide the materials the following month.
When it became apparent that the NYC DoE had no intention of abiding by the Freedom of Information Law and providing us with the requested documents in a timely way, but rather would delay until the information was no longer current and useful, the UFT decided to publish the Separate and Unequal report without the full Special Education data, and did so in January 2010.
On 5 February 2010, we filed a new FOIL request with the New York State Education Department [NYSED], asking for the exact same documents we had requested from the NYC DoE, since it sends copies of them to NYSED. In a matter of weeks, by the middle of March, NYSED had supplied the requested documents to the UFT, making it clear that the NYC DoE’s declarations of the need for more time were nothing but pretext. Readers of Edwize can peruse the documents supplied to the UFT by NYSED for themselves: Charter school invoices — Oct. 2007; Charter school invoices — April 2008; Charter school invoices — Oct. 2008; and Charter school invoices — April 2009.
When one reads the documents, it becomes obvious just what the ‘powers that be’ at Tweed had to hide. Using the data from the documents, the UFT Research Department found that citywide, charter schools had a lower proportion of students with special needs than DoE schools [11% to 16%]. [UFT Research Department Brief, Special Education in Charters and District Schools]∞ More telling, in charter schools citywide students with special needs were disproportionately drawn from the lower levels of disability and need [90% were receiving related services and 7% were in collaborative team teaching classrooms], while in DoE schools citywide students with special needs were drawn from all three levels [33% in self-contained classrooms, 24% in collaborative team teaching classrooms, and 42% receiving related services.] When comparing students with special needs in charter schools and DoE schools in the three parts of the city with the heaviest concentration of charters — Harlem, South Bronx and Central Brooklyn — the contrast is even more dramatic, as the below table illustrates.
Table: Distribution of Students With Special Needs by Disability and Need Level in Charter Schools and DoE Schools in Harlem, South Bronx and Central Brooklyn
|Level of Disability and Need in Student With Special Needs||2007-08 School Year||2008-09 School Year|
|% of Special Needs Enrollment, Charter Schools||% of Special Needs Enrollment, DoE Schools||% of Special Needs Enrollment, Charter Schools||% of Special Needs Enrollment, DoE Schools|
|Self Contained Classroom||0%||42.4%||0.6%||39.7%|
|Collaborative Team Teaching Classroom||6.0%||17.1%||7.1%||20.6%|
Just as importantly, the documents demonstrate that the NYC DoE is failing to provide the most minimal oversight of the education of students with special needs in NYC charter schools. Why are invoices from three charter schools missing altogether? How could the DoE accept blank invoices from charter schools, without any information? If the schools had no students with special needs, shouldn’t they have been required to indicate that on their invoices? How could the DoE accept an invoice from a charter school which listed more students with special needs than the school’s entire enrollment? On the basis of the available evidence, it is hard to see how a reasonable observer could believe that a responsible official in the NYC DoE took the time to actually read these invoices, much less used them to verify the budget for educating students with special needs in NYC charter schools.
This extraordinary dereliction of oversight and fiduciary responsibility is not, unfortunately, a unique occurrence when it comes to Tweed and NYC charter schools. Most recently, the NYC DoE stood by passively as East New York Preparatory Charter School, a school for which it was directly responsible, was systematically exploited and run into the ground, only to announce that it would close the school after all the harm was done. The families and staff of that school are now to pay the price for Tweed’s failure to act in a timely and responsible fashion.
And yet Chancellor Klein is demanding that the cap on charter schools be raised and that the NYC DoE be given further charter schools to oversee — without any reforms to the charter school law to ensure the transparency and accountability which Tweed has consistently failed to provide, much less any reforms to guarantee that charter schools educate their fair share of students with special needs.
The latest on the cover-up? Within a matter of days of the publication of the UFT brief on special education and NYC charter schools, the NYC DoE provided data on the education of students with special needs in NYC charter schools to Kim Gittleson, a researcher who works for capital fund manager and charter school philanthropist Ken Hirsh.§ She published a post on Gotham Schools on the subject; UFT researcher Rhonda Rosenberg delineated the flaws in that analysis here on Edwize. On May 12, the day after Gittleson published her post at Gotham Schools using NYC DoE data, we received our latest letter from the DoE’s Baranello, telling us once again that Tweed was not able to fulfill our FOIL request at this time, but would do so in June.
* We limited ourselves to 64 charter schools because these were the charter schools which had been in operation over the period we were examining.
∞ For the 08-09 school year, the UFT Charter School Special Education enrollment represented 7% of total enrollment. 66% of the students with special needs received related services and/or Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS) the lowest level of service. 34% of the students with special needs were in CTT classes.
§ Among other causes, Hirsh helps fund Gotham Schools and the right-wing Manhattan Institute.