The Panel on Education Policy recently agreed to a change in the Fair Student Funding formula that will increase New York City’s special education class sizes at the start of the 2011 school year. This change will raise enrollment in elementary school inclusions classes from 10 to 12 students, and in high school self-contained classes from 12 to 15 students.
The projected changes have left some parents, teachers and community advocates worried.
“This is a disaster for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),” said Patricia Connelly, Bed-Stuy resident and two-time member of the Citywide Council on Special Education. Connelly, who is also the parent of a special needs student, adds, “[IDEA] is supposed to protect the rights of disabled students who are going woefully underfunded.”
Federal mandates for special education services are outlined in IDEA. Students eligible for special education are given an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is a legally mandated document that details their academic and social needs and provides guidelines for instruction. Among these provisions are specifications for class size.
To comply with these mandates, schools receive additional funding. These funds are intended to cover costs for specialized instructional materials, paraprofessionals, related service providers and special education teachers.
An increase in class size will lessen the need for additional special education teachers, but the Department of Education insists that this tightening of the purse-strings is necessary.
“Basically, we were over-funding,” said sokeswoman Deidrea Miller, “We were using a kindergarten funding model which was a little over generous.”
Miller also said that changes to the funding formula are not out of compliance with federal mandates for special education services.
“We’re still in compliance with the law and the teacher’s union,” said Miller. “In terms of what the kids’ IEPs say for class size, that will still be respected and fulfilled.”
School districts throughout the city are all different, and so the impact of these changes may also vary. Patricia Connelly warns, “In Bed-Stuy, the number of students in special education is higher than city-wide averages. This will place additional burdens on schools with fewer resources.”
Already, Bedford-Stuyvesant is not meeting state standards for performance in special education. According to the New York State 2010 District Report Cards, District 13 and 16, both representing Bed-Stuy, did not make Annual Yearly Progress for students with disabilities in elementary school ELA and secondary school math and ELA.
Another worry is that increasing class size will exacerbate challenges Bed-Stuy schools are already encountering.
“As an educator in Bed-Stuy, I've noticed that many of our children do not come from 'ideal' living situations,” says one special education teacher who wished to remain anonymous. “Many students live in shelters, have family members in gangs, or barely have food or clothing. School becomes a safe haven for them and some often don't want to leave.”
While this is certainly not the circumstance for all schools and students, addressing these challenges could be more difficult with larger class sizes. The same teacher added that, “An increase in class size will not allow students to get that individualized attention they need.”
Among dissenters of the formula change, individualized attention and instructional quality are a common concern.
“Has anyone looked at what a decent class size is?” asks Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of the non-profit Class Size Matters. Suggesting that current enrollment was already too big, Haimson believes current models and programs should be evaluated before they are extended or revamped.
Still, these changes may be just the beginning. New York City is the biggest school district in the country, and therefore is often a trailblazer for educational policy.
“Things that happen here will happen elsewhere,” said Connelly. “If we say it is okay, it will start happening everywhere.”