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Weinstein, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1980, said in an interview with the Forward that she introduced the special education bill following a spring meeting with representatives of Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group that lobbies for ultra-Orthodox interests.
The bill would make a handful of changes to the way in which school boards reimburse private school tuitions to families that believe public schools cannot meet their children’s special education needs.
Orthodox families generally send their children to private yeshivas rather than public schools. But children with learning and other disabilities are particularly expensive to educate privately. New York State public schools are required to provide such children with tailored educational programs, but parents can make claims for reimbursement after placing their children in special education private schools.
The new bill will allow parents to request that school boards also take into account the educational impact of “differences between the school environment and the child’s home environment and family background” when deciding whether a special education child is eligible for private school tuition reimbursement.
The law does not define what it means by “home environment and family background.” Agudath Israel’s Leah Steinberg, who works on special education affairs for the group and attended the spring meeting with Weinstein, said that the phrase was not meant to refer specifically to Orthodox children.
“If you’re talking about a child who’s in the middle of the [autism] spectrum, there are going to be things that they are going to be able to learn… but if you’re not going to put them in a place where they’re comfortable… it will impact on their ability to incorporate what’s going on in the classroom,” Steinberg said.
Critics of the bill said its language will lead to Orthodox Jewish children receiving placements in private Jewish schools.
The motive of the legislation appears to be “tipping the scale” against a special education placement that “is not religiously segregated,” said Jay Worona, general counsel of the New York State School Boards Association. Worona has emerged as one of the bill’s chief opponents.