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Special-Needs Parents See Path Forward

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The goal of public policy advocacy is to achieve results that make people’s lives better. Through the efforts of committed parents and grass roots advocates, sympathetic legislators, and community groups that refused to stand down, such a result was won recently for New York’s special needs community, when the de Blasio administration put an end to the horror faced by too many children with special needs and their parents at New York City’s Department of Education (DOE)

Make no mistake. While it sounds like hyperbole, the horror stories are real. Routinely, parents of some of the 170,000 children with special needs found themselves waiting well beyond the federally required 90-day deadline for appeals. New York City’s DOE challenged placements year after year, even when the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) remained the same. According to one mother, the DOE changed her daughter’s classification from autism and back, depending solely on the school’s placement availability. And one advocate noted that several therapists had stopped working on Department of Education (DOE) placements because they weren’t getting paid.

Finally, years of complaints by parents and lobbying by special-needs advocates paid off. Mayor de Blasio – in an about face from the attitude of the Bloomberg administration – agreed to implement major policy changes to this flawed system. These new administrative changes will result in a win-win for both parents and the city. Life will become much easier for the parents who choose, as allowed by federal law, to educate their children with special needs in non-public school environments because the public school system cannot serve their needs. And the city will be free of new state legislation imposed upon it from Albany.

These newly announced changes resolve three areas of inefficiency that for too long have been the standard operating procedures at the DOE.

The most important change, which will alleviate an incalculable amount of time, stress, and monetary loss for parents, requires the DOE not to challenge the placement of a child unless the placement recommendation is changed during the annual review of the child’s IEP. This is basic common sense. After all, why force a parent to engage in a lengthy, protracted legal battle with the DOE if the child’s IEP remains constant? Inexplicably, the DOE challenged the placement of every child who attended a non-public school, year after year.

Federal regulations require that all appeals are resolved within 90 days, but New York City’s DOE has long been out of compliance with those regulations, resulting in unconscionable delays in providing treatment and schooling to children with special needs. Addressing this problem, the second change requires the DOE to resolve appeals regarding placement within 15 days. We applaud Mayor de Blasio for going above and beyond what the federal regulations require in order to bring a quicker resolution to these matters.

Finally, when placement of a child and tuition reimbursement is agreed upon, the DOE will present a clear payment schedule, including amounts, to parents. Currently, parents shoulder large tuition bills indefinitely, with no timetable as to when reimbursement can be expected.

There are several key lessons here for parents and advocates. The first is that change can happen, even if it takes longer than expected or desired.

The second lesson is that change occurs when allies unite on common policy goals. In addition to the parents, many organizations joined together to pressure the legislature to amend the law, including the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel , the NYS Catholic Conference, and Yachad – The National Jewish Council for Disabilities.

That advocacy effort found committed leadership in Albany. Senator Simcha Felder, after an impassioned floor speech, and Senator John Flanagan shepherded the legislation to passage in the Senate. On the Assembly side, with the blessing of Speaker Sheldon Silver, Assembly Members Helene Weinstein and Phil Goldfeder lined up the legislation for a vote, assuring its passage. In New York City, Council Member David Greenfield kept up the pressure by lobbying city officials, as he has done for the past several years.

About the Author: Jeff Leb is the New York State director of political affairs for the Orthodox Union and the OU-Teach NYS Initiative.


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