Local school districts are asking Gov. Cuomo to veto a bill proposing changes in the way special education placements are made because they say it will place financial and administrative burdens on schools.
Under the bill, passed by state lawmakers last month, schools would need to take a student's home life and cultural environment into account when making placement decisions. The measure would also speed up the process and require districts to reimburse parents for tuition payments made by parents to private schools not approved by the state within 30 days.
Yvette Goorevitch, director of special education for the New Rochelle School District, calls the bill a step backward in many, many ways.
"It moves toward segregation of children instead of integration of a child with special needs," she said.
"It may, in fact, be in opposition to federal and state regulation," Goorevitch said, "which carefully outline the procedures, takes into account parents' concerns and goes toward an individual plan."
She said the district feels the bill was ill-informed.
"It sets up a silent vouchering system," Goorevitch said.
Jere Hochman, superintendent of Bedford Central Schools, agrees.
He said the change could cause public funds to be channeled to private schools because parents of students who are now fully included in public schools parents might opt for the private special education program that complies with the interpretation of considering "home environment and family background." The language could encourage more placements of students with low-incidence disabilities whose education can be in six figures, he added.
Assemblyman Robert Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) said he supported the bill because it was the "right thing to do."
"I understand the financial plight of schools," he said. "But I do not think we are talking about more than a handful of kids. And this bill affords opportunities to kids who require specialized schooling and who have dietary and physiological needs beyond the public school setting. I sympathize with districts but at the end of the day, I sympathize more with the child."
The bill passed 47-13 in the Republican-controlled Senate and 93-50 in the Democratic-controlled Assembly on June 21, the last day of the Legislature's session this year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said the costs were not a factor in developing the legislation. "We thought it was [about] fairness," he told the WSJ. "We honestly don't believe that it's going to cost school districts any more than is appropriate, than what's intended."
Some supporters say the bill could actually save on local costs, with fewer placement hearings and drawn-out lawsuits when parents aren't satisfied with the services provided by districts.
New Rochelle's Goorevitch thinks the opposite.
"In places like New Rochelle and the surrounding communities in Westchester County, it will increase the cost of education and increase the cost of litigation," she said.
"It creates another unfunded mandate for school districts," Goorevitch said, "which is unimaginable in this time of budgetary issues and tax caps."
While much of the talk has been about the cost of the new legislation, Goorevitch said there will be a real effect on the students if it is implemented.
"Here in New Rochelle and across Westchester, we have worked very, very hard to create an integrated setting," she said. "We talk about inclusion, and frankly, inclusive schools can only exist in inclusive communities, and that is developed when parents and the public school district work together."
Through the resolution, districts also say there may be alternative ways to both streamline how placement challenges are settled and ensure parents receive timely reimbursements when warranted while achieving cultural sensitivity.
A copy of the resolution is posted with this story.