N.Y. Bill Eases Special Ed Rules for Ethnic Kids

ALBANY -

A state bill viewed as a breakthrough for New York City children in special education schools will be proposed next week in the state legislature that would empower Orthodox parents in their fight for educationally-appropriate placements.

This is the third attempt in three years to resolve legislatively the problem parents have in sending their children to a school that is appropriate for them. The bill, which will be proposed next Monday, also forces the city to  answer within 90 days if they agree to the parents’ choice of school — a
major step toward clarifying the child’s status.

Currently, parents do not know the outcome until May or even later, in a year that began the previous September. This means that parents are unsure if they will have to pay tuition until close to the year’s end.

The bill also requires that any settlement or determination by a court in favor of the parent’s placement set forth the timeline for making payments and include the amount of the payment.

This time, says the bill’s main Senate sponsor, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, the governor’s office was involved in drafting the legislation and he has been working closely with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, making it a near certainty that it will be enacted by June and go into effect immediately.

“Parents of special education children have enough to worry about without having to jump through hoops each time their child needs an evaluation or placement,” said Felder, who chairs both the New York City Education Subcommittee and the Children and Families Committee.

The Assembly sponsor is Helene Weinstein, a longtime Democrat who represents a heavily Jewish district in Flatbush.

While the bill was proposed at the urging of Agudath Israel to benefit Jewish families who are concerned over cultural factors — there are about 1,000 such families in New York City who use these services — it also helps other special-needs children who require smaller class sizes than in public school, or that need a particular type of service.

After city evaluators assess a child and agree that the child needs special-ed services, they suggest a placement they consider best for the child — which they usually determine by the proximity to the child’s home, invariably in a public school setting. That currently is a major problem for Jewish parents, who send all their other children to yeshivos.

The bill addresses that concern, also ending for the first time the practice of relitigating the school placement each year.

“You do this process, you get to the end of the school year and then you start all over again,” Weinstein said. “The city says, ‘public school,’ and you say, ‘no, private school.’ They re-evaluate the child — that they have to do — but then they start arguing again over the placement all over again. … and it happens again year 3, year 4, year 5.

“Once there’s a placement and it is approved,” she said, “that’s the placement that stays.”

Also, once they agree on a placement, the city must release the funds within 30 days.

The bill was passed by both chambers in 2012 but was vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It was designed to be revenue-neutral — it merely solves a bureaucratic headache for parents — but critics, such as cities and school districts, claimed that it would open the door for children previously unqualified for special-ed services to enter the system.

Bill sponsors say that it would not cost any money, and that cities had to comply in any event under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Act.

“The bill [just] requires the state to follow the federal rules and guidelines,” affirmed Jay Bove, the counsel for the Senate subcommittee on NYC education.

Each court hearing is estimated to cost the city close to $30,000, plus an additional cost to parents of between $2,000 and $15,000 each year when they are forced to sue the city for reimbursement.

According to Mrs. Leah Steinberg, head of Project LEARN, the special ed division at Agudath Israel, in 85 percent of the cases where the parents object to a placement, the city ends up settling.

Felder added that the bill would actually save the city money since private school settings cost between 40 to 60 percent less than they do in a public school.

However, to lessen some of the opposition, the state bill was revised to make it applicable only to cities in New York “having a population of one million or more.” The only city that this affects is New York City, since no other municipality has such a large population. Last year the bill passed the Senate on the last day of the session, which ended on June 30. Faced with the choice of passing it hours before the deadline or leaving it pending, the Assembly said that there was no time and left Albany for the summer break.

Now, the bill is once again before the legislature, and sponsors in both chambers are confident that it will pass and be signed by Cuomo.

In an interview with Hamodia ahead of the 2012 bill proposal, Weinstein called it one of the most significant bills of her three decades in the Assembly.

“This is why I drive back and forth to Albany every week,” Weinstein said. “A few times I’ve had some really good victories; this is one of those.”