EXCLUSIVE: Special-Ed Breakthrough: NYC to Allow Private School Parents 3-Year Contract

NEW YORK -
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

In a breakthrough for families of special-needs children, the de Blasio administration will allow parents who send to private school to lock in reimbursement rates for three years at a time, rather than having to renegotiate a new settlement each year.

The policy change, shared exclusively with Hamodia on Thursday, comes as a welcome break for Orthodox Jewish parents, who until recently spent thousands of dollars and months each year to place their child in an appropriate setting. The policy change was promised by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 to avert state legislation that would have mandated the policy but was never implemented.

Leah Steinberg, director for special education affairs for Agudath Israel of America, said that de Blasio’s change “is still a work in progress” and is a long way from the way parents were treated years ago.

“The part that I’m excited is that the mayor’s office keeps working with us, they’re talking to us on a regular basis and they are moving in the right direction,” said Mrs. Steinberg, who led the negotiations with the city that resulted in Thursday’s announcement. “It is no longer a litigious and vile environment where the parents are the enemy and they have to fight us. It is a cooperative environment.”

New York State Sen. Simcha Felder.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, parents of the city’s nearly 7,000 special-needs children who attend private settings had to pay expensive tuition bills and then file for reimbursement. The city regularly challenged the placement in court, requiring the parents to spend thousands of dollars in lawyer fees before the court ruled in their favor, as usually happened. But this often came well into the next school year, leaving parents in limbo.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Simcha Felder passed the state Senate in 2014, requiring the city to end the practice of blanket challenges to parents of special-ed children. It was hours away from passing the Assembly when de Blasio, unwilling to cede control of education policy to the state, announced an agreement.

The deal mandates that the Department of Education settle with the parents on a non-public-school placement within 15 days, and then refrain from relitigating once it is settled. Additionally, once both sides agree on where the child should be placed, they must reimburse the parents for tuition on a timely basis — starting within 30 days.

The city has about 170,000 special needs children, de Blasio said; only about 3 percent of them will be affected by the policy. Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina was charged with implementing the changes.

The Democratic mayor, who is up for reelection this year, also promised to begin allowing parents to negotiate a placement for three years at a time. He was pushed on it by Felder when he attended annual hearings on the state budget — as recently as last week. De Blasio’s education department announced the deal on Thursday.

“The DOE is dedicated to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to educational opportunities that will allow them to be successful in the classroom and beyond,” Toya Holness, the department’s deputy press secretary, told Hamodia in a statement.

“We are continuing our commitment to supporting the needs of families with valid claims for tuition reimbursement by making the settlement process more efficient,” she added. “We have made significant progress, and by easing the burden, thousands more families of students with disabilities are benefiting.”

Felder told Hamodia that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the policy will work, although he critiqued the mayor for not doing it years ago.

“I am delighted that the mayor is committing to implementing a three-year program,” Felder said. “He made the same commitments last year and the year before and it was never done. I am cautiously optimistic that this time around it will actually happen. Families have yet to see exactly how it’s going to be done and when it’s going to be done. That is the critical question.”

One key question is what will happen if there are changes within the three years to the child’s Individualized Education Program — a document developed for each child laying out their special education needs. Mrs. Steinberg emphasized that the three years does not apply in that circumstance.

Since the changes were instituted by the de Blasio administration in the 2013-14 school year, an administrator of a prominent Brooklyn special education school confirmed to Hamodia, there was a “big improvement.”

Numbers supplied by the Education Department bear that out.

The settlement rate has increased markedly, as has the speed of settlements. For that year, there were 2,389 settlements as opposed to the city taking the parents to court. This represents 51 percent of all the cases.

The number rose to 3,660 the next year, or 69 percent of total cases; 4,528 last school year, or 71 percent; and 4,218 for the current year, or 62 percent.

“It is a good policy,” said Mrs. Steinberg, referring to the new three-year contract — adding that “the policy put in place three years ago is working fabulously.”