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Special education costs flummox NYC policy-makers

POSTED: August 3, 2014 1:00 p.m.
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New York City is now spending $200 million on private schools for special education. Critics argue that this is sapping the city's ability to provide special education in mainstream schools, let alone regular education.

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New York is not alone, but as with most things, the numbers there are bigger. The New York Times reports that the city is now spending $200 million on private schools for special education. Critics argue that this is sapping the city's ability to provide special education in mainstream schools, let alone regular education.

“The more money that is diverted out of the system to pay for private school education for youngsters the smaller school budgets are,” Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy schools chancellor who is now a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, told The New York Times.

Similar conflicts have occurred in Washington, D.C., where mayor Vincent Gray has scrapped with special education advocates as he clamped down on private placement to save money, The Washington Post reported in 2013.

And in New Jersey, The Star-Ledger did extensive reporting last fall, finding that the open-ended court-ordered checkbooks for private schools for the severely disabled has leant itself to corruption and graft.

"In an era when public schools are under intense pressure to do more with less," NJ.com reported of the state's private special ed sector, "the newspaper’s review showed nepotism, high executive salaries, generous pensions, fancy cars and questionable business deals are common in parts of this more than $600 million New Jersey industry."

Parents are routinely suing the city to secure private placement for their disabled children, who they believe are not getting an adequate schooling in the mainstream schools. Often they win, but they do sometimes lose.

“The court does not begrudge the parents’ desire to place their child in the school that they believe is best,” wrote Judge Valerie E. Caproni in rejecting one parent request, the Times reported. “But the law does not guarantee disabled children — or, for that matter, gifted or normally talented children — the best education that money can buy.”

The dispute is over what exactly Congress meant in 1990 when it passed and George H.W. Bush signed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that guarantees a "free and appropriate public education," or FAPE, to children with disabilities. If the schools can't provide that in a public setting, the Supreme Court ruled in 2009, then the statute requires that they pay for private education.

But no one is quite sure what the contours of FAPE at either extreme. When is a kid so handicapped that the state can draw limits on how much it spends to educate him or her? And when is a handicap mild enough that the state can provide adequate education in the regular school?

As with just about anything in American policy, these questions end up in court.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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