In the early summer of 2014, after years of fighting with the New York City Education Department, families of children with special needs finally received good news. Mayor de Blasio held
a press conferencewhere he announced significant administrative changes to ensure that parents have a responsive process to meet their child’s special education needs.
“We are cutting red tape, speeding up the process, and reaching outcomes that do right by families,” said the mayor.
Politicians, advocates and families all cheered. The
contentious process to help children with special needs was over, we hoped, and
the future seemed bright for our most vulnerable children. Even though my
previous efforts to find a permanent legislative solution hadn’t been
successful, I was cautiously optimistic that the mayor’s administrative
solution might work, if he followed through.
Fast forward seven years. The bright future that families of
children with special needs were promised never happened. The
Daily News has highlighted the persistent struggles for so many
families, and the sad reality is that the situation is worse than ever. Simply
put, de Blasio lied to the families of children with special needs and failed
to fulfill the commitment he made at that 2014 press conference. Of course,
this wasn’t the only time that de Blasio said one thing, while his actions and
administration did another. But of all his blunders, misrepresentations and
inactions, this one stands out as the most permanent ugly stain of his
administration, and it is simply inexcusable.
According to Chalkbeat,
a nonprofit news organization covering public education, more than
16,300 special education complaints were open and unresolved as of Nov. 9,
2021. That is a 34% increase from the number of cases in the 2019-2020 school
year. As of last month, 9,399 of these cases have not yet been assigned to a
hearing officer. Despite federal law requiring these cases to be resolved
within 75 days, more than a quarter of these cases have gone unassigned for six
months or more. Even then, after cases are assigned, it takes months to come to
Beyond the startling numbers and statistics, every one of
these cases is a child with special needs. These are children who need physical
therapy, speech therapy and other services to be successful in their daily
lives. These are children who have been diagnosed with autism, Down syndrome or
cerebral palsy, just to name a few. So many of these children have been
devastated by the pandemic, many losing the services they fought so hard to
receive in the first place. Sadly, these are children and families that the de
Blasio administration has failed to adequately serve.
Most frustratingly for me personally was that back in 2014,
there was a real chance everything might have turned out differently for
children with special needs. My colleagues and I in the state Senate passed
legislation in May 2014 which would have streamlined
the process of special education placements and cemented the process
in state law. In an effort to prevent the passage of this legislation in the
Assembly, Mayor de Blasio promised to make the changes to the special education
complaint process. I begged then-Assembly Speaker Shelden Silver to reject the
mayor’s empty promise and pass the legislation.
If the legislative fix had been passed by both houses and
signed into law, the process would have been be permanently fixed and the
changes couldn’t be ignored by the mayor. Instead, the speaker chose to believe
the mayor. Unfortunately, aside for a reduction in paperwork, three of the
four promised changes never happened at all.
It is easy for us to look back now and grumble about what
might have been, but every day the situation gets worse for the many families
of children with special needs who are stuck in the due process complaint
system as a result of the failures of the de Blasio administration.
Yet, as they say, hope springs eternal. De Blasio’s time in
office is almost over and there is a real sense of optimism across New York
City that incoming Mayor Eric Adams and his incoming schools chancellor, David
Banks, will do better.
I respectfully implore and beseech Mayor-elect Adams,
shared that he had a learning disability that wasn’t discovered until
late in life, to address the long, difficult and contentious system by which
complaints are resolved for children with special needs. The families of
children with special needs have suffered long enough. It is my great hope that
Adams and his administration make it a priority to help this long-maligned
group of families, who struggle every day with the challenges of raising a
child with special needs, all the while fighting an educational system meant to
Felder represents Borough Park, Midwood and other
neighborhoods in the state Senate.