Special Education Verified Compliance Rate Drops to 17%
The Court-appointed Monitor overseeing a class action settlement to improve special education in the State-operated Newark Public Schools (NPS) has raised serious questions about the validity of a key record in the NPS files of children seeking special education services. The questionable records are uniformly written, undated letters containing the date for determining whether NPS has complied with a Court-imposed, 90-day deadline for providing services to children with disabilities. The letters were found only in those files taken from district schools to the NPS central office for purposes of the Monitor’s review.
In a semi-annual verification report issued this month, the Monitor, Priscilla Petrosky, questioned the “credibility” of the boilerplate letters because the dates for implementing special education services contradicted other information in the files. She also found no evidence that NPS actually provided the letter to parents, as required by law. The Monitor noted that if she excluded the questionable cases, “100% of [NPS] case files would have lacked agreement with the 90 day Annual Compliance Report.”
“The Monitor’s findings that the records may not be authentic suggest the undated letters placed in students’ files may have been an attempt by an employee or employees of the State-operated NPS to improperly raise the district’s compliance rate,” said ELC Senior Attorney Elizabeth Athos. “As NPS’s self-reported progress in meeting court-imposed deadlines has inched forward over the last three years, the all-important rate at which that progress can be verified by the Monitor has sharply dropped.”
Taking the undated letters “at face value,” the Monitor found that Newark’s compliance rate dipped to a dismal 17% of all randomly reviewed cases, even including the cases with questionable records.
As attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case – M.A. v. Newark Public Schools – Education Law Center has asked Deputy Attorney General Donna Arons, Chief of the Education Section, to refer the Monitor’s report to the appropriate authority within the Attorney General’s Office to investigate whether anyone in NPS may have engaged in improper employment conduct or violated any laws.
The settlement agreement in M.A. v. Newark Public Schools was approved in January 2012 by the New Jersey federal district court. Under the settlement, NPS agreed to improve its identification and timely evaluation of students with disabilities and to achieve a 95% compliance rate in identifying, evaluating and implementing Individual Education Programs for eligible children within 90 days. NPS also agreed to submit regular reports to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), ELC and the Court-appointed Monitor to track progress towards this goal and to develop corrective action plans (CAP) in the event of non-compliance.
In the more than three years since the settlement was approved, NPS has made little, if any, verified progress in improving the delivery of special education services. In July 2015, NPS reported to the Monitor a 48% success rate in having students with disabilities evaluated and served within the 90-day time frame set by state law. After reviewing NPS files, the Monitor could only verify compliance in 17% of cases. If the cases with the undated, questionable records were excluded, the rate would be 0%.
The NJDOE and the Monitor are now working with NPS to revise the CAP to address the district’s ongoing failure to make any progress towards achieving the Court-mandated 95% compliance rate. ELC has the opportunity to review and respond to the CAP once approved by NJDOE. Last year’s CAP specifically directed the district to hire and maintain a compliance manager to oversee implementation of settlement activities, but ELC has yet to receive documentation of such hiring.
A major obstacle to improving special education services is the deep budget cuts made by NPS over the last three years. These cuts have had a major impact on the delivery of special education. In 2011-12, Newark spent $14,139 per classified student on the delivery of special education supports and services. By 2014-15, per pupil spending had fallen 18% to $11,482. The statewide average special education cost in New Jersey’s school funding formula in 2014-15 was $15,596.
The major reason for these cuts is the Christie Administration’s refusal to provide all public school districts with the aid increases required by the State’s funding formula. In 2015-16, NPS was underfunded by over $130 million in state aid.
Another factor is NJDOE’s decision to allow a huge expansion of charter schools in Newark since 2011. Payments to charter schools have risen from $91 million to $225 million. In allowing this expansion, successive Commissioners of Education since 2008 have failed to assess the impact of the loss of funding to charter schools on the resources available to district students, as mandated by several rulings of the NJ Supreme Court. The Legislature also allowed Newark charters to take an extra $25 million in “hold harmless funding” from Newark’s 2015-16 budget, triggering even deeper cuts in district schools.
“This latest report from the Monitor shows the State-operated NPS simply lacks the commitment and capacity to meet the needs of children with disabilities under federal and state law,” said David G. Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “The Christie Administration has chronically underfunded the district, while allowing charter school payments to grow every year with no assessment of the impact on the delivery of special education services. Children with disabilities are far from the public spotlight surrounding school reform in Newark. Their plight, however, is becoming more dire and desperate.”
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