NYC Ordered to Expedite Special Ed Reimbursements

By Reuvain Borchardt

State Sen. Simcha Felder at a rally on the steps of City Hall, calling on the de Blasio administration to expedite reimbursements for special-ed services, Nov. 12, 2019. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

NEW YORK — A federal judge has ordered the New York City Department of Education to streamline and expedite the process for reimbursing special-education services, two decades after special-ed advocates first brought legal action after complaining about lengthy delays.

Judge Loretta Preska of Manhattan federal court ordered the DoE to implement 40 steps recommended earlier this year by a court-appointed special master, and negotiated on by the city and special-ed advocates. The first required steps must be taken within the next three months.

In 2003, advocates and parents of children with disabilities sued the DoE over the the delays in obtaining services or reimbursement for services. Those services can include transportation to and from school; physical, occupational and speech therapy; and tuition payments to private special-ed schools in cases where the DoE cannot properly serve a child in a public school. The city gets funding for these programs from federal and state governments, but disbursement is administered by DoE.

In addition to the delays by the city in meeting deadlines for child assessments and tuition payments, parents complained about being forced to continually re-certify funding for children with permanent conditions, such as severe autism or Down Syndrome.

A years-long battle ensued, in courts, the state Legislature, and the media. State Sen. Simcha Felder, a special-ed advocate, in 2014 threatened state legislation that would have withheld education funding to the city if the situation didn’t improve. The administration of then-Mayor Bill de Blasio reached a deal under which there would be expedited assessments as to whether a child qualifies for funding, and the DoE also agreed to limit paperwork and legal battles over funding and expedite tuition payments.

But Felder said that while the situation improved briefly following that agreement, since 2017 it regressed yet again. In 2019, Felder held a rally on the steps of City Hall with special-needs students, parents and school administrators, calling on the city to expedite the process and provide prompt reimbursements.

The special master, David Irwin, was appointed by the court in 2021, and filed his recommendations in March of this year. The plaintiffs and the city each submitted comments on these recommendations, and Preska held a conference with the parties last month to review and make determinations. On Wednesday, Preska ordered the DoE to implement the 40 steps, which include: developing a family-centered customer support plan; establishing a file-sharing process and tool to improve transparency of all documentation presented at a hearing; assessing and implementing a solution to support the submission and immediate approval of timesheets; and developing a clear procedure by the Implementation Unit to inform schools and Committees on Special Education of an ordered Individualized Education Programs (IEP) meeting.

The announcement of the agreement was hailed by the special-needs advocates and the administration of Mayor Eric Adams alike.

“For too long, the Department of Education has not done enough for our students with disabilities and their families,” said Schools Chancellor David Banks. “The 40 requirements developed by Special Master David Irwin, in collaboration with DoE and plaintiffs, and memorialized today in Judge Preska’s order, are the result of tireless work and collaboration with our general counsel and key DOE leaders who ensured the special master had unfettered access and deep engagement with necessary staff to truly understand the profound challenges that make this work complex and difficult. The new requirements are stringent because we, too, believe that change is long overdue.”

Rebecca Shore, the litigation director at the group Advocates for Children, which filed the federal lawsuit, called the agreement “huge and very impactful for students — especially the families that don’t have the resources to put money out and essentially give the DoE a loan until the NYC DoE pays them back.”

Felder said the agreement is “a crucial step forward in ensuring that every child is given a fair chance to thrive.”

“After 20 years of neglect by the NYC DoE under previous administrations,” Felder said, “I am cautiously optimistic that the Adams administration will take the court’s ruling seriously and implement these changes immediately.”

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