For the past decade, the federal government has identified New York as a state that needs help complying with special education laws.

Still, that information came as a surprise to some of the state’s top education policymakers on Monday, prompting several to call for a stronger approach for ensuring districts are complying with special education laws and serving the most vulnerable students, such as those who have disabilities and language barriers.

“Enough of the data,” Regent Kathleen Cashin, who represents Brooklyn, said during the monthly meeting of the Board of Regents in Albany. “We know the data. We know the data. Now what?”

Regent Judith Johnson bristled at New York’s 10-year-long failure to fully meet federal standards and asked, “How many hundreds of thousands of children have been damaged?”

In 2018, federal officials identified 44 New York districts that needed assistance or an intervention because they were failing to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, such as not evaluating students for disabilities in a timely manner. Student participation on state assessments and their graduation and drop-out rates are also considered. New York City made up a dozen spots — the district as a whole, plus 11 of its community school districts.

New York, which has had this label since 2008, was one of 26 states and American territories labeled as needing assistance for two or more consecutive years. The final 2019 designations are expected in June.

Some Regents said the information felt new, even though board members have received reports on the federal label since at least 2008. Monday’s presentation may have felt striking because it highlights certain data, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said. Among those that raised eyebrows: two charts filled with red X’s, which illustrated New York’s recent failure to meet almost all of its targets for complying with the law and improving special education.

New York City, Buffalo, Poughkeepsie, Elmira, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers have been determined as needing help or intervention for 13 years, state records show.

Any state that needs two consecutive years of assistance must seek technical assistance or set funds aside for certain improvements. New York has sought technical assistance resources, a spokesperson said.  

Regents worried about districts properly serving children who faced multiple barriers, such as educating a large share of English language learners who also have disabilities. They generally called for better communication with superintendents. “If all we’re doing is putting together a nice, neat plan to send out to districts and schools, we’re gonna get nothing,”said Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown.

State leaders stressed that they are working hard to get off the list. The state is already required to make a list of goals for improving special education. It’s now taking a “much more proactive approach” on how districts must correct the areas they’re lacking in, partially by having individual meetings with districts that have shown up on this list for more than eight years, Elia told reporters. That includes New York City. 

Officials also said the 44 districts will have, at the least, professional development plans and more interventions based on how severe their label is.

The department has tried to make a number of changes, including reorganizing its special education office over the past two years under a new and larger management structure, with the goal of improving supports to districts, a spokesperson said.

The state has also issued three requests for proposals to restructure elements of its approach to special education, including one that drew an outcry from parents — ending contracts with organizations that help parents connect to special education services and replacing them with fewer employees. One Regent noted receiving multiple letters and emails about this issue, but the discussion was stopped because the department is actively seeking a contract on the matter and is in a “restricted period,” meaning officials cannot publicly discuss the contract until it is executed, a spokesperson said.