School districts generally shouldn’t be forced to pay private school tuition for special education students if the private schools don’t offer state-approved classes for them.
But they are. And it could become a lot more prevalent soon because, under a recently passed bill, the justification for placing special-needs students in these schools could be largely the religion or culture of the students, rather than the quality of the programs. That’s wrong.
Currently, the state pays most of the tuition when a special-needs student attends a private school with state-approved special education programs. When such a student attends a non-state-approved school, the entire burden falls on the student’s home district. When that happens, it’s often a fight to get the local district to OK the placement and reimburse parents in a timely manner.
This all started with a 1975 federal law that requires special education settings to be appropriate and as unrestrictive as possible. It’s intent was to stop the segregating of special-needs children. That law also states cultural factors may be considered in choosing the school.
But a bill that was quietly passed as the legislative session waned — by both the State Senate, where it was sponsored by John Flanagan (R-East Northport), and the Assembly, where it was co-sponsored by Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) — would make it much easier for parents to win their fight to have children placed in private schools without approved programs, but with familiar cultures. The Flanagan-Weisenberg bill says cultural differences between home and school can impact a “child’s ability to receive a free, appropriate, public education.” It would also set tight deadlines for how quickly the enrollment of such students in private schools must be approved and tuitions paid.
At a time when the mantra is eliminating expensive mandates on local school districts, this could shoot costs through the roof.
Cuomo should veto this bill, which is supported by religious communities anxious to redirect money and students to private schools of their faith. It’s opposed by teachers unions and school districts anxious to keep both in public schools. So far the governor’s office has only said he is reviewing the proposal. In those instances when public school administrators agree the best school is a private one, even a non-state-approved private one, the school should be paid in a timely manner. A law that accomplishes only that would be welcome.
The idea that special education students should be cloistered among students whose religious, cultural or racial background is exactly the same as their own flies in the face of the idea that most special education programs prepare students for the real world. Such a law could also cause a stampede of parents trying to get their kids classified in need of special education, whether they truly are or not, so that they can garner free private school tuition.
These students deserve a good education. This law, though, would erode the basic social assumptions of public education and divert funding from the system that often serves special-needs children best. We shouldn’t send children to schools where the clothing or customs match their background but the educational opportunities don’t serve them well.