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The bill would also require school boards to reimburse parents for special education tuition payments to private schools within 30 days after a school board approves such funding. Currently, the reimbursements — often worth tens of thousands of dollars — can take an entire year to be paid.
Another provision in the bill would effectively end the practice of requiring parents of children placed in private special education settings at state expense to have their placements reviewed on an annual basis. The costly process can require parents to take off days from work and hire attorneys.
Steinberg rejected critics who warn that the broader eligibility requirements will prove costly for local school districts, many of which are already facing high special education costs. Steinberg said that she had discussed the legislation with experts who believe that only a small number of additional children will qualify for private school reimbursements under the new guidelines. “They don’t think there will be any change in the amounts of children,” Steinberg said.
Some critics assert that recent events in the upstate New York school district of East Ramapo suggest otherwise. Situated in Rockland County, the East Ramapo district has a large ultra-Orthodox population and a school board controlled by ultra-Orthodox members. That district has faced sanctions from the state education department over its practice of approving reimbursement of special education tuition for private schools without adequate justification. In the 2011–2012 school year, the East Ramapo district placed 73 disabled students in private schools. The New York State Education Department determined that 19 of those placements were not justified.
The NYSED has not stated why those particular placements were not justified. But Steve White, a longtime activist opposing the school board, argues that the new law could lead to far more requests for private special education placements from the Orthodox community in East Ramapo.
“The special education bill that’s out now would change what’s considered appropriate,” White said. “It could possibly open up for the school district to have to pay for a thousand special education students’ tuition[s] in private schools.”
Orthodox advocates argue that their community is entitled to its share of special education funding. “I think the Orthodox Jewish community receives a pittance of what it gives to the state,” said Ezra Friedlander, CEO of the Friedlander Group, a lobbying firm that represents not-for-profits from the Orthodox community. “If you calculate the amount of money that the city and the state of New York save each and every year by the community sending its children to a private yeshiva… it would be in the billions of dollars.”
Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether or when the governor planned to sign the bill.
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@joshnathankazis