Faced With Special Ed Bill, De Blasio Promises New Policy

NEW YORK -

Buffeted by the threat of imminent passage of a bill mandating that New York City ease its policies on Orthodox parents of special-needs children, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to a potentially historic breakthrough late Thursday with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to unilaterally ease the city’s current policy described by parents as draconian.

The last-minute deal comes after the Senate passed the bill sponsored by Sen. Simcha Felder two weeks ago, and minutes after Silver rounded up the necessary majority in his chamber to pass similar legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, (D-Flatbush).

Noting that the Assembly had passed a similar bill two years ago,
Silver said in a statement that they stand ready to pass legislation in a special session if the city does not keep their side of the agreement.

“While the Assembly has passed legislation in previous years to address this issue,” Silver said, “I have spoken with Mayor de Blasio and he has pledged to make administrative changes to end this practice and implement a system that is fairer to families beginning in the upcoming school year.”

“To be clear,” he added, “the Assembly stands ready to act on legislation … if the New York City Department of Education fails to act as promised.”

Despite the years of effort to get a bill, activists were pleased with the deal.

“The fact that Shelly is now negotiating the deal with de Blasio is a big win for our community,” said a person close to the deal, who asked not to be named, “because [the mayor] is going to try to please the speaker of the assembly.”

This was 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 deal Silver worked out with de Blasio did not contain any details, which will be announced at a press conference later this week.

But the bill which was to have passed would have forced 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 required 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.

But perhaps most importantly, the deal would keep any placement agreed upon for the life of the child, without parents having to renegotiate each year.

“While federal law requires school districts to pay private school tuition for special-needs children if it is deemed the most appropriate placement,” Silver said in his statement, “for too long, New York City has refused to pay or has dragged out legal proceedings challenging these placements. Meanwhile, children are denied their fundamental right to a sound education and parents must shell out thousands of dollars to either pay tuition or challenge these decisions.”

The deal gives de Blasio until Sept. 1 to work out a new system, by which parents will be reimbursed for their tuition payments every month, and they will not have to relitigate the issue every year.

“Once someone is approved,” someone close to the deal told Hamodia on Sunday, “he won’t have to go through the process again and again.”

The bill’s first attempt at passage came in 2012, when legislation would have required to city to take “cultural background” into account when deciding on a placement. But teachers’ unions and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposed it, leading to a veto by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. A modified bill removing the terms “culture” passed last year but it was too late for the governor’s signature.

This year’s bill further limited its parameters to municipalities “with more than a million residents” — or just New York City.

Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, gave a fierce push to the deal with an impassioned speech on the Senate floor two weeks ago. It was then that the mayor started talks toward the deal announced Thursday.

Speaking to Hamodia in a pre-election interview last year, de Blasio had promised to reverse the Bloomberg era policy of making it hard for parents to get tuition reimbursements, ostensibly to prevent the rolls from inflating. Since taking office nearly six months ago, special-ed advocates have said that they did not see any difference from previously.

Mayoral control over the city’s school system had already been eroded this year, with Albany mandating them to find spaces for charter schools.

Felder did not release a statement beyond saying that “we must continue fighting for families with special-ed children until they get all the services they need.”

Orthodox groups, who have been fighting for this for a decade, called the agreement historic.

“This agreement, when implemented, will bring invaluable benefits for children, parents, and the city of New York,” said Mrs. Leah Steinberg, director of special education affairs at Agudath Israel. “The system is now set to be fairer, more effective, and with less waste, than it has been in recent memory.”

Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) said he was “thrilled” that the “degrading process” has finally come to an end.

“The mayor is changing the horrible process in place up until now, where parents felt victimized by having to fight each year for basic services their children are entitled to,” Hikind said.

Chaskel Bennett, an Agudah trustee who played a key role in shepherding the bill through the legislature, said that the people who brought the issue to the fore, “are deserving of enormous appreciation.” The list includes Flatbush activist Leon Goldenberg, Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz of Agudah, Rabbi Shiya Ostreicher and Mrs. Steinberg.

“A tumultuous complicated series of highs and lows that literally went down to the wire late Thursday night, as session expired,” he called the years-long battle. “After three long years of legislative trial and error we finally see a glimmer of hope for the families that need it the most.”