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Pre-K for all? NYC’s universal preschool push leaves behind students with disabilities, report finds

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

Original article written by Alex Zimmerman and Yoav Gonen for Chalkbeat NYC.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K program was undoubtedly the crowning achievement of his administration. The program guarantees free pre-K for 4-year-olds and has grown to include 3-year-olds in a dozen districts with plans to expand citywide.

However, according to an analysis of 2019-2020 city data released in January by the nonprofit Advocates for Children, the city’s preschool programming has poorly served many students with disabilities. The analysis is based on a first-of-its-kind trove of city data that is now required to be released annually under city law. It offers one of the most comprehensive windows yet into how well the city’s more than 30,000 preschool students with disabilities are being served, including patterns that correlate strongly with race and geography.

Included in the findings, Black and Asian preschool students were less likely to be identified for services than their white peers. White students represented fewer than 20% of all pre-K students but more than 37% of those receiving special education services. Asian and Black students were both underrepresented compared with their share of the population, while the share of Latino students was nearly proportionate. When Black and Latino students were identified for services, they were more likely to be funneled to segregated classrooms that only serve students with disabilities.

Additionally, roughly 1/3 (about 34%) of preschool students weren’t receiving all of their legally mandated services. (Some of the figures may have been impacted by the pandemic, but because this is the first time the city has released much of this data, historical comparisons are not yet possible.) By the end of the 2019-2020 school year, over 10,300 students were not in the appropriate special education classroom setting or weren’t provided with other services, such as speech or occupational therapy. “Children are missing out on special education services at a time when you can really have the most impact on their development and education,” said Betty Baez Melo, an early childhood education expert at Advocates for Children.

As New York City has struggled to provide enough preschool special education seats to families who are legally entitled to them, more than 1,500 students were not offered a seat in the correct classroom setting by the end of the school year, a situation that leads to many families simply keeping their children at home. Among the service shortages in 2019-2020, roughly 39% of preschoolers who were recommended for SEIT (special education itinerant teacher) services — or 2,661 children — never got the services, the report says. And while fewer Black and Latino students were recommended to be paired with SEITs, those referred to work with those teachers ended up receiving the service at lower rates than white students, the report shows.

There is significant debate about whether students of color are over- or under-identified as needing special education services. While the Advocates for Children report does not definitively explain the racial differences at the preschool level, experts and advocates point to several possibilities. Getting special education services in preschool can be a time-consuming process that could disadvantage families who don’t have lots of time or resources. And unlike K-12 students, who may be identified for services by their teachers, preschoolers are not yet required to attend school, meaning more of the onus to seek special education services falls on parents.

Lastly, roughly 43% of New York City preschoolers with disabilities were recommended for classrooms that exclusively serve students with disabilities during the 2019-2020 school year, the report found. That figure has long drawn concern from state education officials but has not dropped dramatically in recent years, the state’s target is for only 18% of preschool students to be sent to settings that exclusively serve students with disabilities; the state average in 2019 was about 30%, officials said. “These children are really being shortchanged,” state Board of Regents member Judith Chin said during the board’s Jan. 10 meeting. Chin, who represents Queens, urged state special education officials to immediately press Mayor Eric Adams on the issue.

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