Special Education in New York City

Understanding the Landscape

Cheri Fancsali (2019)

Nearly one in five New York City public school children is diagnosed with a disability, making them eligible to receive special education services. Historically, students with disabilities have had less access to learning opportunities and lower academic outcomes than their general education peers. This brief presents a snapshot of the landscape of special education in New York City, exploring the background characteristics of students who have an Individual Education Plan (IEP), the settings in which they are served, and their engagement with school. Among our key findings:

Who Has an IEP?

  • Boys outnumber girls with IEPs by two to one. Boys were especially overrepresented among students classified with autism, emotional disturbance, and other health impairments, such as attention deficit disorder.
  • Black and Latino students are also overrepresented in special education, and within specific disability classifications. Black students were more than twice as likely as other students to have an IEP for emotional disturbance. Latino and Asian students were disproportionately classified with speech or language impairments. Asian and White students were diagnosed with autism at higher rates than their Black and Latino peers.
  • Students with disabilities are not spread out evenly across the City. The percentage of students with IEPs varied greatly by census tract, ranging from less than 5 percent in some parts of the City to more than 25 percent in others. Generally speaking, disability rates were higher in low-income neighborhoods.

Where Are Students with Disabilities Served?

  • More than 80 percent of NYC’s students with disabilities were served in traditional public schools (i.e., Community School Districts 1-32). An additional 11 percent were served in District 75, a special district in the City that serves students with low-incidence disabilities or highly specialized needs. About 7 percent were served in charter schools.
  • For a majority of NYC students in special education, their IEPs recommend placement in an inclusive setting for some part of the day. However, students classified with autism, emotional disturbance, and intellectual disabilities were predominantly recommended for self-contained classrooms.
  • Students with disabilities who are served in inclusive environments rated their school climate somewhat more positively than those in self-contained classrooms.

How Engaged Are Students with Disabilities?

  • Students with disabilities have high rates of chronic absenteeism. But these rates varied substantially by disability type. Students with an IEP for emotional disturbance were the most likely to be absent.
  • As with attendance, suspension rates varied greatly by disability type, and students classified with emotional disturbance were the most likely to be suspended.

 Intersecting Vulnerabilities

  • Because Black students were disproportionately classified with emotional disturbance, they also had disproportionately high rates of suspensions and chronic absenteeism. Likewise, Black students and students from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to be recommended for self-contained settings.

The brief draws on these findings to highlight a number of important questions for policymakers and educators. We hope this work provides a useful foundation for discussion and the development of new lines of research.