Advocates To Press For New Bill For Special-Ed Payments


Legislators and advocates for a vetoed bill that would have forced school districts to take “family background” into consideration when reimbursing special-education expenses for yeshiva and other private schools are optimistic that a new bill is in the making.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month rejected the measure, passed with a healthy majority of both houses, saying that it placed too heavy a burden on school districts, which lobbied against the bill and have been saddled with increasing costs for students who say public schools do not meet their religious, cultural or other needs.

The bill was heavily supported by Orthodox Jewish and Catholic groups, who say students with special needs are entitled to learn in an environment in which they are most comfortable, including religious schools, and should be reimbursed for the secular portion of their education.

Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein of Brooklyn, who sponsored the bill in the lower house, said that rather than try to overturn the governor’s veto — only seven additional votes are needed — she and others were working on a new version.

“I look forward to working with the governor’s office to craft a new bill that can assist the parents of children with special needs while at the same time not raising the concerns that were raised by the opposition, much of which I believe [was based on] misunderstanding of what the ultimate impact of the bill would be,” Weinstein, a Democrat who represents Sheepshead Bay and other areas, told The Jewish Week Tuesday.

Federal law already requires school districts to reimburse families for expenses of children with an individualized education program if they demonstrate that public school does not accommodate the child’s needs. A 2009 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the child need not ever have attended public school to be eligible for the reimbursement.

The bill rejected by Cuomo, which also faced significant opposition from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would have required districts to consider “home life and family background” in addition to the child’s abilities and special needs.

“Some children can’t be educated properly unless there is consistency in their day from morning to night, between home and school,” said Leah Steinberg, director of special-education projects for Agudath Israel of America, which lobbied for the bill.

She noted that the bill did not change the fact that reimbursement is still decided at hearings conducted by school boards.

While one provision addresses the criteria, others address the necessity of parents having to file every year for the same child, and how long reimbursement should take. Under the bill a check would be mailed within 90 days.

“If the public school isn’t an appropriate placement and the private school is an appropriate placement, once that is determined, what this bill was trying to address is when the parents gets reimbursed, which can be a very large hardship for parents,” said Steinberg, who said getting a new bill passed was a top priority for her organization.

“I think the intent of the law is misunderstood, and we have to work together to see if there is a way to make it happen.”

In welcoming the veto, Bloomberg said, “The proposed legislation would have imposed another unfunded mandate on taxpayers across New York. With his veto, Gov. Cuomo has once again shown his commitment to fiscal responsibility and to protecting both the city and state from unsustainable financial burdens.”

A spokesman for Cuomo did not return a call for comment in time for publication.

City Hall’s opposition to reimbursement in the case known as “New York City Board of Education v. Tom F” led to a split 2007 Supreme Court decision (with Justice John Paul Stevens absent) that left a lower court’s ruling in place by default.

A spokesman for the Senate Majority Leader, Republican Dean Skelos, said he was committed to passage of the bill or a successor.

“This is a conversation we continue to have with all the parties,” said the spokesman, Scott Reis. “We think it’s a good bill. We’re looking at the veto message and we’re continuing to move forward from there.”

Another sponsor of the bill, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, said he believes there is a strong chance a new bill would be passed during a special legislative session to be convened in late fall after Election Day.

“There is a real discussion and negotiations going on and they will continue to go on,” he said. “I’m rather optimistic we’ll be able to do it this year.” He said passage of a bill that ended litigation would be beneficial to New York City because “85 or 90 percent of the people win in court, but the city still spends tens of millions of dollars on lawyers. This legislation would get rid of that, because parents won’t have to go back every year and waste money for the city and themselves.”

Hikind conceded that sponsors might have spent more time consulting with the governor before they passed the bill. “There is a question of whether there could have been more discussion, but we’re past that point,” he said. “Whatever changes can be made to make this bill go ahead and not take away the objective is being discussed with key players.”

Marc Stern, an expert on religion and law for the American Jewish Committee, said the inability of public schools to comfortably accommodate children with both special education and religious needs is what led to the long battle to create a special school district in the upstate chasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel.

“In the Monroe-Woodbury school district there was a heavy emphasis [in the public special-needs program] on learning community-based skills, like going to McDonald’s to learn how to make change,” he said.

“The problem is that with the financial crisis the public schools don’t want to be burdened with private school tuition.”

Stern said his organization’s position is “fairly supportive of efforts to confine or limit the amount of government aid that flows to private schools but that’s not to say that we think it would be correct where the school cant meet the needs of a student that has to be sent to private schools.”

He added that an onerous process of reimbursement can have a negative toll on a child’s education.

“The problem that all these cases ignore is that it takes time to make these decisions and meanwhile the kid is falling further and further behind,” said Stern.