By Judith Dinowitz
On Wednesday, September 17, the mood was both jubilant and hopeful at New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s offices in Manhattan, where approximately 120 New York City parents of children with special needs, legislators and community activists gathered. The event, a workshop run by Agudath Israel of America’s Project LEARN, detailed sweeping changes in NYCDOE policy that will make these parents’ lives much easier.
Parents listened intently as Agudath Israel activists, the elected officials instrumental in shaping the policy shift, New York Mayor de Blasio’s education policy team and representatives from the NYCDOE legal team, lauded and explained the new and improved process by which parents could apply to the NYCDOE for tuition reimbursement for their children with special needs privately placed in a nonpublic school.
The workshop began with these key players speaking briefly about this success and thanking those involved, and the atmosphere was exultant. Those present at the podium included Assembly Speaker Silver; NYC Comptroller Scott M. Stringer; NYS Senator Simcha Felder; NYS Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein; Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America; Mrs. Leah Steinberg, Director of Agudath Israel’s Project LEARN; and Karin Goldmark, Senior Education Policy Advisor to First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris in Mayor de Blasio’s administration. Also present were Sherif Soliman, NYC Director of State Legislative Affairs; and Avi Fink, NYC Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, as well as Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Community Affairs,Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz; and community activists Chaskel Bennett, Leon Goldenberg, Shimon Ostreicher, Shia Ostreicher, and Aryeh Weiss.
Assembly Speaker Silver effusively praised Mrs. Steinberg, who in turn, introduced Ms. Goldmark. The Mayor’s representative referenced a PowerPoint presentation as she explained the new streamlined process for tuition reimbursement which included a detailed overview of the “10-day Notice Settlement Process.” This new policy aims to facilitate settlements and limit litigation. By law, the city must grant all children a free and appropriate public school education (FAPE). When public schools cannot accommodate the needs of special needs children, the “Carter law” mandates that the jurisdiction pay for an appropriate placement, even in a nonpublic school, as long as it meets the specific needs of the child’s documented in his IEP.
Until now, parents often ended up suing the city year after year, even when they had been approved previously for a nonpublic school placement and there was no material change in the NYCDOE’s recommendation. With the new NYCDOE policy, Ms. Goldmark promised, parents can now give notice to the city of their intent to apply for reimbursement 10 days before their children are supposed to start school. Within 15 days of receiving notice, the NYCDOE will notify the parents whether they agree to settle. In most cases, only if the NYCDOE does not agree to settle would the parents have to file for due process.
She promised that altogether, the entire settlement process would take no more than 90 days, including the first 15, and that parents would be reimbursed for tuition costs within 30 days of the approval of a settlement. The entire process, from initiation of the 10-day notice to tuition reimbursement, should take no more than 120 days. Email accounts have been created to make the whole process faster, and an automatic online system is in place to help NYCDOE lawyers process all requests. She proudly reported that so far, the NYCDOE has processed 100% of the 1,119 notices that were received by email, and over 1,400 letters have gone out to parents notifying them of the NYCDOE’s intention to settle. She advised parents who have already sent notices by other means to resend them to the new email addresses, indicating that this is a copy.
Ms. Goldmark gave the parents a renewed sense of hope at the meeting by stating that “the Mayor’s goal is to address the needs of parents and also to rebuild damaged trust. This process is designed to recognize that you are already carrying a heavy burden; you do not need the additional burden of litigation.” This echoed Rabbi Zwiebel’s comments, who declared that the goal was to help parents give their special needs children the best education they could provide. “The real heroes,” he said, “are you, the parents.”
To limit litigation, the city will initiate a settlement in the following cases: where the NYCDOE failed to give an IEP; where the IEP was flawed; where the parent was awarded, through settlement or litigation, a nonpublic school placement the year before and there had been no change in the NYCDOE’s recommendation; and where the child is entering a terminal grade, such as 8th grade or 12th grade in a school that the NYCDOE had already funded.
Parents at the meeting were happy about the news. Mr. R said, “I very much appreciate the effort that the elected officials put into this; hopefully the attention and focus will help improve the process.” Mrs. D. of Boro Park said the change was a little late for her, but she hoped other parents would be spared the ordeal of litigation.
In response to a question from the audience , Ms. Goldmark reassured them that while the federal standard requires no more than that the school district proposed placement of a child with special needs be “appropriate’, the Mayor has a slightly different view. His standard is ‘the best we can get for every child. The goal for this city is that every child should have a great education.”
Assemblywoman Weinstein said, “So many parents in my district in Brooklyn and around the state are involved in being advocates for their special needs children. They get bogged down in bureaucracy and jump through hoops. It just seemed like a merry-go-round that we wanted to stop…I really wanted to help the parents and the children. I think, with the city’s help, we’re moving forward in that direction.”
Assembly Speaker Silver expressed his confidence in the new process. “In the past, the city has not been responsive enough to your needs. There were too many hurdles… With the new administration, under the leadership of Mayor de Blasio, I’m confident those days are behind us.”
Perhaps the most poignant moment was when Mrs. Steinberg said, “When you have a baby, you feel empowered to do what you need to do for that child. When you have a special needs child, the system doesn’t let you do what you have to do to mature your child. With this change, we are giving back empowerment to parents of children with special needs.”