NYC Special Ed Accord: Parents Cautiously Optimistic

NEW YORK -

Brochie Statfeld knows well the pain and the torturous process described at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s news conference on Tuesday unveiling a historic agreement on non-public school placements for special-needs children — she was on its raw end of the bureaucracy year after year after year, 14 in total.

So Mrs. Statfeld, a Flatbush mom of a 17-year-old autistic daughter, still has a hard time describing how she feels about the deal announced to ease the agony of parents such as her, who are unhappy with public school placements for their child and want New York City to reimburse them for private-school tuition payments.

“Besides for money and the time, it’s just emotionally
draining,” she says. “Parents of special needs kids — you know, we have enough on our plate. It’s hard, it’s just hard.”

Rivky Mozeson from Far Rockaway echoes the hardship, but adds that she was buoyed by the resolve with which de Blasio announced the rule changes on Tuesday. Her son Yehuda Arye, almost 21, is almost aging out of the school system. But she said she was “so happy” for the nearly 1,000 other special needs children affected by the deal.

“Initially I would have said that I was cautiously optimistic,” said Mrs. Mozeson, whose son is developmentally delayed “in all areas.” “But after I watched the press conference I would say that it was really gratifying to see a change of attitude.”

“I have a wait-and-see outlook,” she added, “but it definitely looks positive.”

The deal announced at a City Hall news conference brings to a final settlement an issue that has for decades vexed Orthodox parents of New York City’s special needs children. Flanked by nearly a dozen state lawmakers and longtime advocates, de Blasio said that beginning in September the city will have 15 days to rule on a private school placement. They will then not be allowed to change it as long as the child’s needs remain the same, or about every three years.

Jeff Leb, New York state director of OU Advocacy who lobbied alongside Agudath Israel of America and the New York Catholic Conference for the bill and subsequent deal, called the agreement one which will provide “much-needed financial and emotional relief to parents who have, in the past, had to resort to costly, time-consuming and emotionally-draining litigation as their only option to secure funding for their children’s education.”

The deal was agreed upon to forestall a pending bill in the state legislature. The Senate passed the bill sponsored by Sen. Simcha Felder three weeks ago, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver already rounded up a majority necessary to pass the bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein.

Silver, who was at the gathering with de Blasio, said he would go ahead with a bill if he saw no change in policy by the beginning of the upcoming school year.

Mrs. Statfeld, who works for an early intervention agency, is willing to give the mayor the benefit of the doubt. She recalled how de Blasio, then a councilman representing parts of Boro Park, intervened a few years ago when city payments to HASC were being held up.

“He has a good track record,” she says.

Her daughter was diagnosed at about age 3 with autism. That began a multi-year odyssey for her and her husband into the world of New York City’s former Board of Education, now called the Department of Education.

Every year began with the same process: she waits for the Board of Ed to suggest a public school setting — each year a different idea, she says. Uniformly, she was unhappy with her choices. One year the public school told her that they were unable to fulfill her daughter’s high mandate for therapy, another year no school was sufficiently trained in her ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis. She even recalled a public school employee telling her that their program was too high for her daughter’s level.

So she selected a private school for special-needs children, Kulanu in the Five Towns. It is a place where her daughter is happy and succeeding. She has still not mastered the ability to read and write properly, but they teach her vocational skills, she has become very social, and she even goes to camp in the summer.

“The city says that the placement has to be ‘free and appropriate,’” she says. “We as parents want it to be ‘free and optimal.’”

But tuition is exorbitant. The state Constitution requires the city to reimburse her, so she is already used to her annual anguish of hiring a lawyer to explain how the school the city suggested is not appropriate for her child. Taking off precious days from work, she goes to court, goes through the hearings, until she would be informed that she won. She would then wait months for the city to reimburse her for her tuition.

“I call it a circus,” she says about the city’s seemingly stubborn opposition to pay what is required of them. For the 2013 school year, which ends this week, although she has a court order that the city must pay up, she is still waiting for payment. Sometimes, she notes, the school does not get their money for the past school year until October.

One year, she notes glumly, she lost the case. So how did she pay the tuition?

“I took out another mortgage on my home,” she says. “We’re still paying that off.”

The hardest part for her, as it is for most of the parents going through the loops, was the relitigation each and every year.

“She is not going in one year from a child with autism to a fully functioning child,” says Mrs. Statfeld, clearly frustrated. “It’s just not happening.”

For the upcoming school year, Mrs. Statfeld already had a court date to begin her 15th year of battle.

Then the deal with de Blasio was announced. While she says she is happy to see the mayor make the commitment publicly, sort of setting it in stone, she is nervous of a line allowing the city to change the placement when the child’s needs change. Her daughter’s IEP, or Individualized Education Program, changes nearly every year, she says.

“I’m optimistic,” Mrs. Statfeld says. “I think that de Blasio is recognizing that the system is broke and has to be fixed. … This one line scares me a little because it gives them wiggle room. I think time will tell if they’ll use it or abuse it.”

Mrs. Mozeson said she is frustrated hearing that the deal will “cost” the city money. Aside for the fact that it actually saves money, it was disheartening to hear her life’s troubles boil down to dollars and cents.

“We have such a hard time raising such children,” she says, “and to have the feeling that everything comes down to money, everything comes down to cost…”

Her concerns with the deal are that it is not etched into law, perhaps leading a future mayor to change the policy just as de Blasio switched on Tuesday.

“I just hope that de Blasio will maybe set a tone, that future administrations won’t be able to change it,” she says.

Her son Yehuda Arye has come a long way from when he entered his first special education school at age 6. Delayed both behaviorally and physically, he attends the Special Torah Education Program (STEP).

His progress has been remarkable, Mrs. Mozeson says. He is not nervous anymore when company comes, and he is more expressive about what is happening in his life and school.

“I always say, ‘what is one small step for mankind is one giant leap for Yehuda Arye,’” Mrs. Mozeson says, laughing.

Now exiting the torturous path of fighting the city for reimbursement, Mrs. Mozeson says she wants to express “tremendous amounts of hakaras hatov” to those who helped bring about the deal, in particular Mrs. Leah Steinberg of Agudath Israel of America, bill sponsors Felder and Weinstein, and de Blasio.

“If the politicians are listening now,” she says, “you should know that it makes all the difference that somebody is finally listening to you. It’s very hard when you feel you are alone.”