As the Education Department faces intense pressure to reconsider school budget cuts, Chancellor David Banks has indicated there is another pot of money he wants to cut: hundreds of millions of tuition dollars for students with disabilities.
“All of this money for kids in our public schools goes to private schools,” Banks said at a regular meeting of his parent advisory council. “People have figured out how to play this system.”
If that money was invested in traditional public schools, “we wouldn’t have this fight over budget cuts,” Banks said. “We would be able to pay for all those after-school programs, all those kinds of things. It’s money going out the back door every day.
Banks’ comments have struck a nerve with some parents and advocates who argue that the rising cost of private school tuition is due to the city’s failure to provide adequate options for students with disabilities rather than an effort to enjoy the city. Under federal law, families have the right to seek private placements if the city is unable to provide free and appropriate education in a public setting.
“It feels a bit like blaming families, but the reality is that there is no place in the public school system for many of these families to turn to,” said Maggie Moroff, an expert in Disability Policy at Advocates for Children, which provides free legal assistance to families seeking private placements.
Several hours after Banks’ comments, Education Department spokeswoman Nicole Brownstein wrote, “We know that families want to do what’s best for their children, and all children have the right to attend a school that best meets their needs and allows them to reach their highest level. potential.”
The payment of private school tuition has long been a contentious political issue in New York. Many families and advocates say they are a lifeline for students who would otherwise languish in public schools, ranging from those with relatively common reading issues like dyslexia to those with more severe intellectual delays.
But securing tuition fees often takes a lot of time and resources, creating barriers for low-income families. Some argue that the money could be better spent creating quality programs that are more accessible within the public system.
Banks appears to favor the creation of more in-house programs, and his administration has begun to launch programs specifically for students with dyslexia, though these efforts remain quite modest. The chancellor didn’t say exactly how he thought families were playing with the system or whether the education department was considering any specific policy changes to make it harder for families to get tuition payments from schools. deprived of the city. A spokesperson declined to give further details.
Led by Mayor Bill de Blasio, city officials have sought to make it easier to navigate the refund process, a break from his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who hired additional attorneys to fight attempts by families to s enroll in private schools.
Banks said the city is now spending $1.2 billion on special education payments, including tuition for private schools. There are thousands of students with disabilities who attend private schools paid for with public funds, but their paths to obtaining this funding can differ significantly.
Some students are placed there directly by the Department of Education in cases where the city does not dispute that the student cannot be properly served in a public program. Other families have to sue the city to get tuition paid. Payments to private schools have risen dramatically in recent years, according to a 2021 report from the Independent City Budget Office.
It took a long battle — and free legal help — for Manhattan mother Yolanda Rodriguez to secure a private school placement for her son who was struggling to learn to read in a traditional public school.
But she eventually earned her son a placement at the Community School in Teaneck, New Jersey, which offered more specialized instruction and one-on-one help. His 12-year-old son, Landon, thrived there.
“At first he wasn’t reading at all,” Rodriguez said. “Once we transferred him to community school, he was able to start the next year reading, picking up books and reading signs.”
Rodriguez bristled at the Chancellor’s suggestion that she was taking advantage of the system. “It wasn’t easy at all,” she said. “Maybe for rich parents it’s easier, but not for us.”
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering New York’s public schools. Contact Alex at [email protected]