By Judith Dinowitz
On April 30, 2015, at a meeting hosted by Agudath Israel of America, a group of enthusiastic administrators and principals of Jewish special education schools in New York City gathered to provide feedback on a new special education tuition reimbursement policy that took effect in the city at the beginning of the current school year.
This new policy, announced in June 2014 by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the NYC Department of Education (NYCDOE), and then Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, streamlines the process by which parents of special needs children in a nonpublic school can apply for tuition reimbursement. It also sets time limits for the process and promises to avoid needless litigation when there has been no change in a child’s previous recommendations for placement. With the program in effect for a year, Agudath Israel’s special education division, Project LEARN, convened the meeting to assess how well it was working and find out where the process could be improved.
The verdict was extremely positive. Most participants agreed that applying for reimbursement was much simpler, with a faster response time to applications and a shorter time to reimbursement, helping parents and schools meet their financial obligations. In fact, most administrators had a hard time finding problems to report. They lauded the various public officials who were instrumental in creating the new policy: State Senator Simcha Felder, former Assembly Speaker Silver and Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, and Mayor de Blasio.
Several administrators singled out Mrs. Leah Steinberg, director of Project LEARN, and Agudath Israel of America, for their work in helping to bring about these changes. Rabbi Moshe Menachem Twerski from Ichud Mosdos Hachinuch of Brooklyn said, “On behalf of myself, my teachers and my students, I want to tell you the difference that it has made. People can focus on the right things instead of running to hearings. It has made a major change in education.”
Mr. Yaakov and Mrs. Bluma Bar-Horin, administrators from the Yaldeinu School, which educates autistic children in Brooklyn, also attest to the improvements in the application process. In a letter to Mrs. Steinberg, they say, “The Department of Education is far more receptive to the needs of our parents, and has worked to streamline the process for our families, making it easier to obtain settlements, so that our children can receive an appropriate education. Not only has this helped our parents, it has also served to help with the school’s cash flow, making it possible for us to more efficiently operate our school.”
At the meeting, most of the concerns mentioned were specific to a school or district that had unique issues, but had nothing to do with the process itself. Ideas on improving the process included adding automatic payments, not requiring parents whose cases have not changed to submit income tax forms, and not insisting that those forms be signed if they were filed electronically. There is still a delay in payment for some cases, due to a backlog that the city is working through, and Mrs. Steinberg has undertaken to tackle the problem. She requested that administrators give her a list of any outstanding issues, which she would forward to the proper official.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s Executive Vice President, said, “We are honored that we had a hand in a policy change that has made such a difference to these parents, who already have so many responsibilities. Project LEARN and Agudath Israel will continue to work to improve the lives of children with special needs and their families.”
Mrs. Steinberg expressed her delight in the much shorter list of problems mentioned at the meeting. “I used to hear a catalog of complaints, enough to fill a whole notebook! The schools had such a hard time with the reimbursement process. This year was refreshingly different.”
She is looking to make the process even better, and to iron out any remaining problems. To that end, she asked that parents of special needs children in nonpublic schools who have applied for reimbursement this year send her feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. “I really want to hear from parents,” she said. “Your input is vital since your children are the most important part of the equation.”