Testifying before state lawmakers Tuesday, New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza was peppered with questions about special education, school safety, and integration efforts. When asked about expanding services or giving more to individual city schools, his responses typically boiled down to one thing: more state funding. 

“This is another reason why $1.1 billion owed to children of New York City makes it difficult to scale toward the needs of students,” Carranza said in response to a question about the school system’s piloting of a dyslexia screening tool at two Brooklyn schools. 

That $1.1 billion figure is how much city officials say is owed to New York City under a 12-year-old state formula, known as Foundation Aid, that sends extra dollars to high-needs districts. That funding has never been given to districts at the levels initially promised, state education officials, lawmakers, and advocates have long contended. (However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said there is no longer a legal obligation for the state to provide Foundation Aid at those levels, and his administration has pointed to annual funding increases for the city.)

In his budget proposal for next fiscal year, which starts in April, Cuomo has proposed about $11.5 billion for New York City schools — close to 2% more than what the city got from the state last year. State funding currently represents 36% of the education department’s budget, with the remainder coming from city and federal sources.  

Still, Cuomo’s proposal would leave a $136 million gap in what city officials project they’ll need from the state next fiscal year, according to testimony Monday and Tuesday from both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Carranza. That figure is tantamount to what it costs to employ 400 social workers or guidance counselors, they said. 

As Cuomo’s budget proposal gets debated, lawmakers will hash out their own draft. Then, negotiations — done largely behind closed doors — will produce a final budget, which must be approved by April 1 and is effective through March 31, 2021.

But the conversation on Tuesday about New York City’s education system often veered from the topic of budgeting. Here are a few highlights from Carranza’s testimony.

Special education

Several lawmakers questioned Carranza about the district’s struggle to meet special education needs, including on the buckling impartial hearing process, through which families can lodge complaints about whether their children’s mandated services are being delivered. 

Brooklyn Democratic Sen. Andrew Gournardes noted the roughly 10,200 unresolved complaints that families have filed. Nearly 70% are past the legal deadline for a resolution. That backlog is now the subject of a class-action lawsuit.

“It raises the question of how urgently the department is taking this issue,” Gournardes said. 

Carranza said the city is “on a track to clear that backlog by the end of the school year.” An education department spokesperson later clarified that he was not referring to the entire backlog of delayed cases, only those that the education department has already agreed to settle, but have still not been processed, and were filed last school year or before that. 

He also said the city is working “hand in glove” with Albany on the state-issued compliance assurance plan, which details a broad range of problems with the city’s special education system. 

“I can assure you, sir, that this is a priority for us, that we are in the weeds really undoing and redoing [the system] to serve the community,” Carranza told Gournardes. 

Both Carranza and a couple of lawmakers highlighted the city’s struggles to open enough pre-K seats for students with disabilities: Nearly 2,000 such students could go without a seat this spring. Part of the reason is stagnant state financing for private pre-K providers, which educate the majority of preschool students with disabilities who require specialized classrooms. 

Without a higher reimbursement rate from the state for such providers — known as 4410 schools — Carranza said they could be forced to “close their doors because they simply can’t pay the bills.”

“It’s a perfect storm: 4410 schools closing with more students being identified for needing support,” Carranza said. The city has opened 1,000 seats for students with disabilities in public pre-K programs in the past two years but has not made up for lost seats elsewhere in the system.

Assemblymember Helene E. Weinstein, another Brooklyn Democrat, asked why the city is still fighting Carter Cases, which allow parents of children with special needs to be reimbursed for certain private school placements, after the mayor promised in his first term that the city would fight parents less over them. Spending for Carter Cases has grown from $222 in 2013 to $540 million this fiscal year.  

Carranza said, ideally, all children with special needs could be served in public schools. But “in the meantime, as we work to make that a reality,” the school system must resolve parent pleas to send their children to school elsewhere. The de Blasio administration has made it easier for families to get tuition reimbursements. 

“The north star would be that parents would not have to see the need of going outside of the school system — the DOE — to get the services they need for their students,” Carranza said, referring to the city education department.

School safety 

Carranza was asked repeatedly about what he’s doing to address concerns over school safety from school leaders, parents, and students, and whether the system is embracing the right discipline efforts.

The chancellor faced criticism in recent weeks after he left a heated Queens town hall where parents raised concerns about school safety issues, including sexual assault. Carranza sparred with politicians on Twitter over why he left and emphasized that school officials were working directly with parents to address concerns. He later apologized for how the matter was handled and offered to meet with the parents. 

In the summer of 2019, the mayor announced a range of new discipline reforms, including curbing lengthy suspensions and limiting student arrests for low-level offenses. Last month, the principals union said the reforms have led to more unruly schools, and administrators have struggled to embrace the changes. 

“I understand that the administration would like to focus on intervention and restorative justice, and that’s OK, but it’s not OK when you have parents and teachers and administrators around the city saying they don’t feel safe,” said Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island Republican. 

Carranza said he didn’t agree that “all parents, all students, all administrators” feel unsafe. The school system works with the police department when, for example, students are accused of serious crimes. Restorative justice practices, which attempt to get to “the root” of a problem, are reserved for less serious offenses, Carranza said. 

“But a student that is mouthy, a student that is disrespectful, a student that isn’t paying attention — when you suspend that kind of a student, you’re treating a symptom,” Carranza said. 

Integration 

In one testy exchange, Queens Democratic Sen. John Liu asked Carranza, “Do you think you might have some issues in the Asian-American community?”

Carranza has faced backlash from some Asian-American New Yorkers over various policy decisions — most notably, for his support of getting rid of the admissions test for specialized high schools in order to diversify those schools. Since a majority of admissions offers go to Asian students – 51% last school year — some Asian-American families believe scrapping the test would elbow their children out. Some feel Carranza and the mayor haven’t done enough to understand their concerns and have called for Carranza’s firing.

Carranza pushed back and said he’s “working hard to bridge the divide” with Asian-American families, and that he would welcome Liu’s help. Liu, who oversees the Senate’s New York City education committee, said he’s offered help “many times, but you’ve never taken me up on it.”

Later, Manhattan Sen. Robert Jackson, a Democrat, said he thought Carranza is an inclusive leader, and encouraged the chancellor to “hang in there,” and “listen to what people have to say.”

Carranza doubled down on his support for repealing Hecht-Calandra, the part of state education law that governs the specialized high school admissions test. Repealing that law would effectively allow the city to set admissions policies for its three largest specialized high schools. 

“Get out of the school board business,” Carranza told the room of lawmakers. “You have bigger fish to fry.”

Liu, who doesn’t support the plan to repeal the law altogether, questioned why the city couldn’t change policies at its five other specialized high schools not named in Hecht-Calandra. Carranza said it wasn’t clear the law allows them to do so, and that those schools don’t want to be a “bifurcated” system of schools with and without the test.