By Debbie Maimon
Project LEARN of Agudath Israel of America will host a special workshop on September 17th where parents will learn the details of a dramatic reversal in New York City’s policies regarding special education tuition reimbursement, for special needs children in nonpublic schools, including yeshivas.
Project LEARN Director, Mrs. Leah Steinberg, will present on how families can utilize these long-awaited breakthroughs to ensure proper placement of their special needs children in programs suited to them, and how to expedite tuition reimbursement from the City.
“While the word is out that the landscape has changed, most families with children with special needs don’t yet grasp how the new policies will impact them. With New York City promising an expedited process, earlier deadlines for applications for special education placement must be met. What are those deadlines? Is it still necessary to hire a lawyer or can parents handle their own case? Will tuition for special education programs still have to be laid out until reimbursement kicks in? What other policies are relevant for parents to know about?”
The meeting will take place at the office of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who, together with Mayor Bill de Blasio and State Senator Simcha Felder, have worked closely with Agudath Israel and others to revolutionize the way the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) handles tuition reimbursement for special needs children in the private sector.
For years this has been a contentious area, marked with incessant litigation between parents of challenged children and the NYCDOE, which has sought to limit funding for special education placementss outside of public schools, even where required by law.
Federal law mandates that all children are entitled to a free and appropriate public school education (FAPE). What happens if public schools cannot accommodate the needs of a particular child? The “Carter” law, as it is known, requires the government to pay for an educational placements regardless if it outside the public school system, as long as it meets the child’s needs, as evaluated in an IEP (individualized educational program).
“In the past, the City’s hardline approach toward reimbursing parents for placing their special needs children in non-public programs forced us into an adversarial relationship,” Mrs. Steinberg told this reporter. “The exciting thing is that we are about to witness a 180 degree change in that situation.”
She reflected on the obstacle-riddled path that led to this landmark change in policy. “Parents of children seeking a special education program in the yeshiva system had to repeat a grueling process every year to be reimbursed for their child’s education, often including a new evaluation for the IEP. Each year they had to hire a lawyer to litigate the case anew.”
Legal fees alone could run parents into thousands of dollars, in addition to special education tuition that can cost anywhere between $30,000 to $150,000 a year. Even if parents won their case, given the painfully slow drawn-out process at the City’s end, it could take years for reimbursement to actually come through. In the meantime, the child’s program has to be paid for in a timely manner, often forcing families to take out major loans and run into steep debt as the months drag on without a decision from the City.
“Compound these draining financial pressures with the stresses of dealing with their child’s disability – be it autism, Asperger’s, Down Syndrome or other issues which make it hard for them to learn -and add to that the anxiety of being kept in limbo the entire year or longer. It’s clear why changes in the system are desperately needed for the survival of these families,” said Mrs. Steinberg.
LEGISLATION PASSES SENATE, STALLS IN ASSEMBLY
Project LEARN, which advocates for the educational needs of children with special needs in nonpublic schools, attempted for years to work within the prevailing system to win appropriate placement and tuition reimbursement for such students. But as the City grew more adversarial by the year, further complicating efforts to win financial settlements from the Department of Education, Agudath Israel began to seek legislative relief.
Proposals for legislation that would simplify the tuition reimbursement process as applied to special education placement in private schools were sent to Albany. Twice the bill passed in the Senate and once in the Assembly, but it was not finalized into law.
“Lawmakers said they didn’t know why we felt the necessity for new legislation,” Project LEARN’s director told this writer. “The protections we were seeking for students with special needs were already in federal law. Little did they know how the process wasn’t working. In addition, there was opposition from people who complained that it would negatively impact the district budgets. These people fail to understand that educating children with special needs in the private school sector costs far less than public school education, and actually saves the districts money.”
This spring, a bill was attempted for the third time, with key revisions that its sponsors hoped would enable it to pass, recounted Mrs. Steinberg, who was involved in the crafting of the legislation.
“Mayor Bloomberg had hired about 30 lawyers to deal with the tuition reimbursement requests. They had been steadily tightening the screws, making it harder than ever to get settlements for our special needs children. We felt the noose tightening. We pinned our hopes on this latest bill.”
“Parents who knew about Agudath Israel’s proposed legislation in Albany were calling our office every day,” she recalled. “There was one couple coping with an autistic son for whom they had laid out $100,000 in tuition plus legal fees. They had just lost their case. On top of that, they had a new baby that they suspected also had special needs. The parents were at the breaking point. They were counting on our new legislation to ease their financial plight. This was our third try in three years. The bill had just cleared the Senate, thanks to Senator Simcha Felder who gave it a huge push. Now it was going to the Assembly for a vote. But our sources told us it would be defeated again. How could I tell this to this poor mother?”
GAME CHANGER IN ALBANY
Mrs. Steinberg said she began feel a pressing need to lobby for the bill’s passage in Albany.
“What harm could it do? We were going to lose anyway. It couldn’t get any worse than that. ”
In the end, the Agudath Israel legislation never came to a vote in the Assembly. Mayor Deblasio’s promised sweeping policy changes made the need for legislation moot.
Years of behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the Agudath Isreal leadership which included, among others, Leon Goldenberg, Chaskel Bennet and Shia Ostreicher, converged with late-hour political brinkmanship to produce a Heaven-sent breakthrough for special needs children and their families.
Sources close to the mayor have said that much of the impetus for incorporating Agudath Israel’s proposals into new government policy came from Mayor de Blasio, who as a longtime supporter of helping children with special needs preferred that “appropriate placement” and tuition reimbursement for NYC families of children with special needs be handled by his office, as opposed to being legislated by the state.
Once the document outlining the new policies was completed, Speaker Silver and Mayor de Blasio called a major press conference to publicize it, followed by a meeting between lawyers from the Department of Education and attorneys representing the parents in tuition reimbursement cases.
THE CULTURE HAS TO CHANGE
“The mayor’s office put out the message that in the past, Department of Education officials had tended to view parents seeking tuition reimbursement as adversaries whose claims had to be challenged, but it was time for that culture to change,” said Mrs. Steinberg.
“The message was, these parents are not our enemies, they are decent, well-meaning people trying to find appropriate placement for their children with special needs. They are entitled by law to do so, and they are entitled to have an answer as soon as possible. Most of all, they are entitled to be dealt with in a compassionate, respectful manner.”
The guidelines for the new policy were announced at a press conference at the end of June by the office of Mayor de Blasio. The Mayor and Speaker hailed the new measures.
“The special education placement process has been fraught with contention and litigation in recent years. The changes announced today will simplify and expedite the process for families with valid claims,” he promised. “The Department of Education is committing to render decisions about whether to settle cases within 15 days, to expedite reimbursements, and to limit the paperwork parents are required to submit,” the Mayor’s press release said.
The September 17th parent conference, to be addressed by Mrs. Leah Steinberg, will provide a watershed of invaluable information about these and other issues. Parents and advocates for special needs children are urged to attend.
“A good turnout will signal our community’s thanks to Sheldon Silver and other elected officials who worked hard to secure these benefits for our community,” Steinberg noted. “It will also generate more support for the new policies in the government body. That will boost their success more than anything else we could do.”