Op-Ed: DOE’s Special Ed Blunder

Letitia James headshot_croppedDOE’s Special Ed Blunder

By Letitia James


Michael is a six-year old Autistic boy living in the Bronx with his mother Modisha. As a student with disabilities in New York City, Michael is supposed to have access to therapists to help him with his communication and learning, but his mother has struggled to obtain them.

Unfortunately, Michael and Modisha are not alone. There are over 200,000 students with disabilities in New York City and, according to recent data, nearly one in ten are not receiving their legally mandated services.

Last week, my office brought a lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education (DOE) for failing to properly track the needs of students with disabilities and provide these children with the services they deserve. This negligence has resulted in a severe lack of services for kids like Michael, and also resulted in a major loss of Medicaid revenue for the City.

DOE is supposed to track children with disabilities through a program called the Special Education Student Information System (SESIS). SESIS was created in 2009, and has cost the City over $130 million to create and maintain. The point of SESIS was to create a centralized data system to track the Individualized Education Plan, or IEP of each student with a disability. An IEP is given to any child with special education needs and it is used to identify and track the types of special education that children need.

SESIS is supposed to facilitate management of the entire special education process, ensuring that all of our children with disabilities get the services they need when they need them. That includes tracking when students are getting their services and how much the City should get in Medicaid reimbursement for these services.

But since it was adopted, SESIS has been plagued with countless problems that result in real impacts on our children and the services they depend on. The system regularly crashes; it does not properly track data; data is incomplete; teachers often cannot input data; and off-site providers cannot even access the system.

This means that Michael often cannot get the services he needs. In fact, for the past two years, he has attended a school where his services are delayed. His mother’s countless calls to his school were met with a variety of answers that all pointed to an incompetent system and she and Michael remained without therapy.

As if hurting our most vulnerable children wasn’t bad enough, this system is cheating our taxpayers too. Because it has failed to properly track the special education needs of our students, we have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid reimbursements from the state. According to an analysis by the New York City Comptroller’s office, DOE failed to recoup a cumulative $356 million in federal Medicaid dollars for eligible special education services just between fiscal years 2012 and 2014.

No child in our schools should be the victim of a bureaucratic mess, especially our most vulnerable students with disabilities. It is children like Michael, who cannot get the occupational or speech therapy that he so desperately needs. And it is mothers like Modisha, who are promised special educational resources, but are left without answers as the DOE makes paltry excuses for the mess of the system they created. This lawsuit is the first step to hold DOE accountable, and ensure our children get the education they deserve.

Leticia “Tish” James is the Public Advocate of the City of New York. 

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