CIVIC CENTER — Heading off a round of proposed legislation by Albany lawmakers, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed Tuesday that the city would make it easier for parents of special needs students to get reimbursed when sending their kids to private schools.
“We believe in a parent-friendly, family-friendly approach…to get parents what they need,” de Blasio said during a press conference at City Hall announcing the agreement, which followed threats from New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to pass a law to force the city to streamline the process if the city didn’t do so willingly.
“Let us fix the situation. We believe we need to fix the situation,” de Blasio said Tuesday, standing alongside Silver. He noted that the legislation could be passed at any point if the city failed to do its job.
Beginning next school year, the mayor’s office said the Department of Education will seek to provide parents with a decision within 15 days after they’ve argued that their students cannot get the services they need in a Department of Education-run school.
De Blasio also promised to speed up the repayment process for parents, as well as reducing the protracted legal process parents face. Additionally, he said the DOE would refrain from re-litigating cases unless the special need diagnosis for a student changed, ending a controversial practice in which the city demanded documentation each year from parents and experts before reimbursing for school costs.
Silver praised the agreement, saying it would give “parents an emotional and financial relief they deserve.”
Even as they promised more help for parents, both de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña reiterated Tuesday that they felt the city’s public school system still remained the best place for most special needs students.
The mayor repeatedly declined to say how much the city currently spends per year on tuition for students who are approved for reimbursement for private school education, but according to the city's Independent Budget Office, the city is estimated to have paid out more than $200 million in reimbursements this year. The cost was expected to rise to $220 million, an IBO official said prior to Tuesday's announcement.
Valerie Victoria Williams, a member of the community education council for District 75, which serves the city's special needs students, said it remains to be seen how willingly the city chooses to work with parents.
Under the current adversarial system, she said, “[The Department of Education will] try and tear you, the parent, limb from limb — as if it’s your fault — because they’re unable to provide your child with an appropriate education,” she said.
She said parents with students with special needs who can't get the services they need at a city public school are forced into the impossible situation of paying a lawyer to battle the DOE, even as they pay for private education up front, at a cost of upwards $100,000 a year.
She added that she fears the city will still try to use the current Individualized Education Program system, which determines what services students are eligible for, as a hurdle from having to pay for students to get education reimbursement elsewhere.
"If they're using the IEP as the basis to judge whether a student is serviced or not, that is going to be the loophole," Williams warned.