City agrees to ease process for special needs students seeking private school tuition

The city will curb its legal challenges against parents who want the city to pay for their children with disabilities to attend private schools, officials said Tuesday, a move intended to appease lawmakers who sought greater protections for such parents.

The city is obligated to pay for private schooling for children when the public school system cannot provide the special-education services they need, though parents must request a special hearing before the city will fund the private placement.

In recent years, the city’s education department has hired extra lawyers to more aggressively fight parents’ tuition-reimbursement claims at those hearings, partly as a cost-cutting tactic. Because parents must request a new hearing each year, the city will often challenge claims that parents won the previous year, advocates say.

As a result, many parents annually endure long legal battles and face the threat of steep legal fees and tuition costs if they lose their cases.

Beginning in September, the city will not fight cases that have previously been settled or that parents have won, and it will seek settlements more quickly when it does not plan to challenge reimbursement claims, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference Tuesday. The city will also ease the paperwork requirements on parents seeking those reimbursements, and will expedite payments to them, officials said.

“Thank God that we’ve gotten here today,” said Leah Steinberg, the special education affairs director for Agudath Israel, one of several Orthodox Jewish advocacy groups that have led the charge in pushing for the policy changes. “It’s changing back to being about the family and child, instead of being, you’re the litigant.”

The state Assembly was set to vote on a bill last week that the had Senate already passed, which would have kept parents of children with disabilities from having to request the same private school placements and tuition reimbursements each year. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver agreed to table that bill after de Blasio committed to the policy changes, though Silver said Tuesday that lawmakers “reserved the right” to reintroduce the bill if necessary.

While about 170,000 students receive special-education services in public schools, a few thousand students with disabilities receive city funds to pay for private school, officials said. That private school tuition will cost the city roughly $208 million this year, according to estimates by the Independent Budget Office.

The city’s more combative legal approach was intended to drive down those costs by forcing families to prove that the public schools could not meet their children’s needs. The city also began to appeal more cases that it lost to state reviewers, who often rule in favor of the city.

“That might’ve been the good litigation strategy, but it was not a humane way to run a school system,” de Blasio said Tuesday.

He could not say whether the policy would result in more private school placements and higher costs for the city, but argued that “if there is an additional cost, it’s appropriate because we’re serving the families more fairly.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña added that many students with disabilities are “best served in public schools,” but that the new policies would “ease the burden” on families who seek services outside the public system.

While some advocates commended the announcement as a step in the right direction, they pointed out that it is not a new law, but a policy change that must be enacted. The education department has not yet created any new regulations to codify the new policies, officials said.

“I’m eager to see how this will all be implemented,” said Rebecca Shore, litigation director at Advocates for Children. “I hope this announcement will result in less litigation and a less frustrating process for parents.”