Local school districts are asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto a bill proposing changes in the way special education placements are made because they say it will place financial and administrative burdens on schools.
Under the bill, passed by NY state lawmakers last month, schools would need to take a student's home life and cultural environment into account when making placement decisions. The measure would also speed up the process and require districts to reimburse parents for tuition payments made by parents to private schools not approved by the state within 30 days.
A group of 42 Westchester-Putnam school boards, including Pelham, have approved resolutions formally opposing the bill, according to the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association. Cuomo has until Wednesday to decide if he's going to sign the bill into law.
"It would put an undue financial burden on the district," Peter Giarrizzo
assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and personnel at Pelham Schools, said during a school board meeting on July 10.
Jere Hochman, superintendent of Bedford Schools, said the change could cause public funds to be channeled to private schools because parents of students who are now fully included in public schools might opt for the private special education program that complies with the interpretation of considering 'home environment and family background.'
The language could encourage more placements of students with low-incidence disabilities whose education can be in six figures, he added.
Martha Arden, vice president of the Pelham school board, said she also feared that the law would be a two-tiered system. Arden said the law might allow families who have the ability to pay for their child to attend a month at private institution to get a head start on families who don't have the financial wherewithal in terms of placement.
Also, Arden worried that if districts are forced to take cultural environment and homelife into account in their placement decisions. Arden said religious and cultural consideration are important, but she worried the law would be open the door for the public's funding of religious institutions.
"It would give parents the opportunities to say our religion or our culture is very important to us and, therefore, our child must go this particular private schoolthat is supported by that particular religion or cultural organization," Arden said during the July 10 meeting.
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The bill passed 47-13 in the Republican-controlled Senate and 93-50 in the Democratic-controlled Assembly on June 21, the last day of the Legislature's session this year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, voted against the bill.
"I voted against A-10722a – the cultural special education bill – because I believe it undermines the intent of what we have been striving for – to provide our school districts with the tools and resources necessary to provide an excellent and equitable education for all children," Paulin said. "This bill separates children based on cultural preferences and drains needed resources from school districts for both special education and general education students creating yet again, another unfunded mandate for taxpayers to bear.”
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said the costs were not a factor in developing the legislation.
"'We thought it was [about] fairness," he told the WSJ. "We honestly don't believe that it's going to cost school districts any more than is appropriate, than what's intended.'"
Some supporters say the bill could actually save on local costs, with fewer placement hearings and drawn-out lawsuits when parents aren't satisfied with the services provided by districts.
Attorney Peter Hoffman said he believed the bill, if passed, would cut down on the number of lawsuits brought by families given the new consideration for family life and cultural circumstances.
"I support the change because the current system leads to litigation that is
typically not completed until years after the actual school year in question
occurred," said Hoffman, whose practice focuses on children with disabilities.
Through the resolution, districts also say there may be alternative ways to both streamline how placement challenges are settled and ensure parents receive timely reimbursements when warranted while achieving cultural sensitivity.
A copy of Pelham's resolution is posted with this story.