NYC Department of Education (DOE) Chancellor Richard Carranza took an important step last week to make public schools more inclusive for students with disabilities by proposing an additional $750 million over the next five years to make at least a third of schools in each public school district fully accessible. The announcement is a vital step in creating inclusive public schools for students with disabilities so that they can fully enjoy all the resources the school system has to offer.
The proposal echoes the funding amount that Advocates for Children suggested in a report last month, “Access Denied,” and responds to persistent advocacy from groups like the ARISE coalition (of which The Law Office of Steven Alizio, PLLC is a proud member) that urged the DOE to include funding in this plan to meet accessibility goals. The Access Denied report documented how only about 20 percent of schools across the NYC system are fully accessible to students with disabilities. Other schools that are partially accessible may have certain areas that are off-limits to students with disabilities; for instance, a school may have an accessible first floor but no accessible way to get upstairs.
Carranza’s proposal is the first step in the capital plan process, which happens every five years. The current proposal lays out all of the new construction and building improvements the DOE wants to fund for fiscal years 2020 to 2024, and proposes spending $17 billion in total.
Across the city, more than 200 NYC school buildings are more than 100 years old, which means the city would have to demolish and rebuild many of them to make them fully accessible, the DOE told Chalkbeat recently. For that reason, the capital plan focuses its spending on bringing partially accessible schools up to fully accessible standards rather than prioritizing schools that are not accessible at all. According to Chalkbeat, the DOE said that these improvements will range from “‘really easy fixes,’ such as adding ramps for wheelchairs, to ‘very big overhaul projects,’ such as building access to a second-floor gym.”
In addition to improvements in building accessibility, the total capital budget proposal of $17 billion includes plans for more permanent classroom space—although this will not necessarily mean smaller class sizes—air conditioning, and technological improvements, all of which could benefit students with disabilities by increasing comfort and access to learning materials in diverse formats, depending on how the school system implements those improvements.
As Advocates for Children said in response to the capital plan announcement, the increased accessibility will “literally open the doors” for students with disabilities. But we hope that the DOE does not stop there. Having only a third of schools in each district accessible can still impose hard limits on where students with disabilities can learn, what school events parents with disabilities can attend, or where teachers with disabilities can teach. There is no guarantee that a student’s zoned school, or the one with academic programs in which they are interested, will be accessible or close enough to be feasible, particularly given the busing issues that plagued the school system earlier this year.
According to “Access Denied,” even District 75 programs, which are meant to specifically serve students with disabilities who require more intensive services than other schools can provide, are sometimes housed in less than fully accessible buildings.
All this does not even mention, of course, the education that students get once they are physically able to access the school building. Based on the newest data from the DOE, nearly 40,000 students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) did not get some or all of the services they were mandated to receive in the 2017-2018 school year. A number of news outlets also reported earlier this year on systemic issues with IEP services and concerns about getting students the therapy services to which they are entitled.
Nonetheless, Carranza’s announcement should provide much hope. The additional money earmarked for increasing school accessibility will improve the quality of education for countless students across the NYC system and, importantly, shows that advocacy from parents, teachers, and students does make a difference.
The DOE will gather input from Community Education Councils and other community representatives on the proposed plan through February, and in March will submit a revised plan to the Mayor and City Council for approval, according to the timeline in the plan. We encourage all those involved with the NYC public school system to make your voice heard throughout this budget process and continue to push for what you think will make the school system the best it can be for all students.