No (Special Needs) Child Left Behind
Dovy stands on the curb, watching the school bus pull away without him. Again. A few minutes ago, the bus pulled up to his home with twenty empty seats. But while his brother, Yossie, climbed aboard, Dovy was not allowed to get on. Instead, his parents spend $800 a week or more for private transportation to school.
That sounds ridiculous, right? Yet that’s the exact situation faced by another New York parent of two children who need a special ed program. Both children have IEP’s (Individual Education Programs) from the Committee on Special Education (CSE). The school district placed both children in special ed programs. For both children, the parents chose a different program that would better match their child’s needs. So why did one child get left behind?
A LOSE-LOSE SITUATION
For years, state policy was to provide school transportation for all special needs students up to 50 miles from their home. Recently, however, this long-standing precedent is being challenged and denied.
In our story, Yossie’s parents chose a school that exactly matches his disability classification. He is, therefore, eligible for bussing. But Dovy’s classification is slightly different. And by taking advantage of a loophole in the current legislative language, there is room for local districts to deny transportation to students whose program is not “similar” to what was recommended by the CSE.
It’s ironic. Often when parents choose a new program, it’s not similar to the CSE’s recommendation. That’s the very reason they sought an alternative.
Parents of these children are in a bind, forced to make a wrenching decision. Should they send their child to a program that they know is not optimal? Or should they turn their already overstressed lives upside down to provide their own transportation? The cost in transportation, missed work or job opportunities, and transit time is enormous.
And is the school district saving money? Not in the long run. The parents will likely sue the school district, and a long and expensive court case will ensue. After a painful and protracted process, they’ll probably prove that the school they chose is appropriate for their child. In the end, the city will pay them back for their transportation costs, having also spent outrageous sums on legal fees.
It’s a lose-lose all around.
NEW LEGISLATION ADDRESSES THE PROBLEM
Recently, a new bill offered hope to these parents. Last year, State Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Queens) met directly with some effected parents and heard their stories. In response, she proposed a bill in the NYS Assembly, which was also introduced in the State Senate by Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Queens). This legislation, drafted in conjunction with Agudath Israel of America, clarifies the state law and closes the loophole. A child with an IEP will automatically receive transportation within 50 miles of home. After all, a child in a regular education class is entitled to transportation to the school of his parents’ choice within 15 miles. It’s reasonable to give a little more leeway for special ed, where programs are more specialized and harder to find. This small tweak in the language of the law will have huge ramifications.
The division of Agudath Israel collaborating on the legislation is Project LEARN. Led by Mrs. Leah Steinberg, it’s a comprehensive resource for families of children with special needs. Project LEARN staff provide a range of educational and advocacy services to parents of children who attend regular yeshivas and special education schools.
In this case, Mrs. Steinberg, along with Agudath Israel’s government relations and legal teams, helped draft this legislation. But more was needed to ensure the bill’s success.
MISSION TO ALBANY
To meet the need, this past Tuesday, Agudath Israel organized a mission to Albany to rally support for this bill. Agudath Israel sent delegates Mrs. Leah Steinberg, Director of Project LEARN, Mrs. Leah Zagelbaum, Agudath Israel’s Director of Communications, and Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Director of New York Government Relations, who organized the itinerary for the day. They were joined by Rabbi Baruch Rothman, Director of Institutional Advancement at Yeshiva Darchei Torah, and six dedicated parent advocates from the heavily affected districts of Far Rockaway/Nassau.
The delegates’ goal was to educate the lawmakers on the impact of the current narrow definition of the law. They stressed that these students are often ones with language processing disorders or reading disorders. With the right services addressing the gap, the vast majority will go back to mainstream classes. They’ll grow up to be productive, tax-paying citizens of New York.
However, if the city doesn’t properly invest in them, they will fall farther and farther behind.
POSITIVE RECEPTION FROM THE LEGISLATORS
Agudath Israel is deeply grateful for the time the lawmakers gave them to hear their presentation. Over the day, the delegation met with Senators Michael Gianaris, the Deputy Majority Leader, Shelly Mayer, Chair of the Education Committee, Toby Ann Stavisky, Chair of the Higher Education Committee, Joe Addabbo, the bill sponsor, Simcha Felder, Todd Kaminsky and John Liu.
On the Assembly side they met with Assemblymembers Stacey Pheffer- Amato, sponsor of the bill, Michael Beneddetto, Chair of the Committee on Education, Ways and Means Chair Helene Weinstein, Anthony D’Urso , Simcha Eichenstein, Daniel Rosenthal, Al Taylor, and Tremaine Wright.
The group also met with staff of Senators John Brooks and Jen Metzger and Assemblymembers Alicia Hyndman and Ron Kim.
Senator Addabo said, “I believe this bill would provide much needed expanded transportation for children with special needs for the purpose of receiving appropriate educational and program services. This bill is a small way of assisting the children and their families with the services they need and deserve.”
Assemblywoman Pheffer-Amato said, “I am thrilled to be working with Agudath Israel on this important piece of legislation and to have met with so many wonderful families in Albany. Parents of children with special needs have enough on their plates. They should not have to prove that the services or programs their children attend are similar to the ones recommended by the CSE in order to receive transportation.The law should be clear and school districts should not be able to hide behind a loophole in order to deny transportation.” “We deeply appreciate the time given to us by members of the legislature to discuss this important issue,” said Rabbi Silber. “Hearing the powerful presentations made by these parent advocates made a huge impact and made us quite hopeful for the ultimate success of this bill.”