New York – One day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plans to have the city ease tuition reimbursements for parents of special needs children who attend private school, parents and advocates are hoping to finally be able to claim victory in an arduous and emotional battle that they have been fighting for years.
As previously reported on VIN News, the current system requires parents of special needs children who send their children to non-public school to undergo an annual review, a lengthy, difficult and costly process to determine if the city will reimburse the high cost of their child’s tuition. Reimbursements, when they are granted, can take months to come, leaving parents in a constantly recurring state of financial upheaval and under extreme emotional stress.
Video below NYC Mayor DeBlasio making the announcement on June 24, 2014
Advocates have worked hand in hand with elected officials to have the system changed, and over the past two years, bills that would have required the city to find more appropriate placements for special needs children were defeated.
A newly modified bill had already passed the Senate and was due to be voted on in the Assembly when the mayor intervened, saying that the city would be stepping in and the recently released City Hall action plan will streamline the process, giving parents who challenge placements answers within fifteen days, will end the process of annual reviews in most cases, will reduce paperwork and will expedite payments. All of these changes will be in place for the upcoming school year.
All across the city, parents of special needs children are heaving a collective sigh of relief.
Far Rockaway residence Rivky Moseson, whose 20 year son Yehuda Aryeh has been in the special education system since preschool, said things have worsened significantly in recent years.
“Lately the attitude at the Board of Education has been much more antagonistic towards parents and their philosophy seems to be to cut corners at the expense of the kids,”
Mrs. Moseson told VIN News. “I know how things used to be and I have seen it deteriorate. Basic services like therapy that they used to give, they would delay the process or try to eliminate it entirely. They drew out the whole process of negotiating with parents so that what used to take months would now shlep through the school year. Parents were financially strapped and emotionally overburdened. Every year we would come to fight the new battle while we were still fighting the previous battle from the year before.”
Mrs. Moseson’s son will be aging out of the special education program as he turns 21, but the memories of her battles with the Board of Education are still fresh in her mind.
“With each meeting we were just waiting to see what would hit us next, where the axe would fall,” said Mrs. Moseson. “Every year they would send the same recommendation and we would fight the same battle. It was almost like a game. If the school wasn’t appropriate last year, why would they suggest it again?”
Brooklyn resident Simi Eichorn described her interactions with the special education system as “one of the most traumatic and angst filled experiences you can have.”
Mrs. Eichorn, the mother of 20 year old with Asperger’s syndrome said that she was astounded that even after winning a proper placement for her daughter, Avigayil, the city would continue its annual attempt to place her in a different setting, a policy that makes no sense for a demographic that thrives on consistency.
“Once you find the best place for your child, you want to work with it and let them do their best,” said Mrs. Eichorn. “Every year you have to defend your decision and you give them all these reasons about how she is doing academically, vocationally, therapeutically. And it is like they just stick their hands into a bag, pull out a paper with the name of a random school and say ‘How about this one?’”
The process was an emotionally draining one, according to Mrs. Eichorn.
“After they listen, they make these suggestions and you spend the day there shvitzing, afraid of saying the wrong thing. You send them letters saying why their placement doesn’t work and then you wait for a response. Meanwhile, you are sending your child to the school you think is best, spending a fortune, taking out loans and the thoughts always loom: how will I pay for this if they say no? Just because we have a special needs child, it doesn’t mean she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth.”
Even once the placement is approved, sometimes months later, reimbursement can take a very long time.
“You don’t even know right away how much you are getting,” said Mrs. Eichorn. “It usually takes another six months till they make the first payment and the schools are working at huge deficits and they often ask you to sign on loans to cover the costs. This is so difficult: the pain, the frustration, the anxiety, the emotional roller coaster and the money, the amount of money is incredible. And you have to come up with it year after year.”
Mrs. Eichorn acknowledged that the public school system does provide quality services for some but that for certain children, they are just not adequate.
“The city is trying to do the best it can educating these children and kudos to them. But it is so simple. One size does not fit all and some kids just need a different setting.”
The mountains of paperwork that accompany each facet of a special needs child’s education is yet another arduous task face by parents.
“We have paperwork up the wazoo and we are already overburdened parents who don’t feel like reliving this every year,” explained Mrs. Eichorn. “We have so many important issues to deal with, why are we always pushing papers?”
Bayswater resident Annette Turner, who had several children who passed through the special education system for various issues over the years, said that she found that her children flourished once they were given the services they needed but that the system was full of inefficiencies and inconsistencies.
“One year I never got a copy of my son’s IEP,” said Mrs. Turner. “Another year they sent me another child’s IEP, which is classified information.”
In another instance the Board of Education was providing bussing to one of the Turner children. There was only one other child on the bus who would get picked up at 6 AM every morning in order to get the two children to school by 8:15. Mrs. Turner’s son would get on the bus 90 minutes later, at 7:30.
“The other mother fought with the Board of Education about the timing and one day they just showed up at my door at 6 AM. They changed the route without even telling me.”
Mrs. Turner arranged an impartial hearing with the Board of Education where she represented herself.
“It was a no-brainer. I won in 20 minutes and they put the kids on two separate busses so that neither of them would be picked up at 6 AM.”
Occasionally services that were authorized by the Department of Education were never provided or equipment that had been approved took a year to arrive. Unlike many other parents, Mrs. Turner found that the financial issues were handled fairly well, but that the placements were often ill advised. Mrs. Turner learned early on to be very specific in challenging a placement.
“Some years the placements were totally wrong but your arguments can’t be religion based, racially based or gender based. It has to very clear: the placement you gave me does not meet my child’s specific needs.”
Special education teacher Miriam Nockenofsky of Kensington, the mother of two autistic children, firmly believes that those who live through an experience are best suited to coming up with solutions to the problems. Her son, Yaakov Yisroel, was one of a group of children who was bussed to Albany for a Senate session.
“He wasn’t happy about going because he knew that sitting there would be boring but his Rebbe told him it was a mitzvah for him to go and he went,” said Mrs. Nockenofsky. “He was sitting there as a recess was called and four senators passed by as he was saying to himself “I’m doing this because I’m autistic, right?” He repeated the sentence three or four times and those senators finally got to see firsthand what being autistic is all about. They changed their vote and voted in favor of the bill, which ultimately passed the Senate.”
Mrs. Nockenofsky noted that reforming the special education system to better serve the needs of parents and children isn’t just a Jewish issue.
“There are plenty of Muslim kids, Catholic kids and Asian kids in the system and the fact is that the public school system doesn’t know how to train their teachers to deal with these kids,” said Mrs. Nockenofsky. “Their teachers are not properly trained and they have no idea how to deal with behavioral issues.”
While there has been much opposition to providing special needs children with a non-public school education because of the cost, Mrs. Nockenofsky noted that the cost of forcing parents to go through an impartial hearing every year is a tremendously expensive proposition.
“It costs the city $50,000 to go to court with me every year and if I win, they have to pay my legal costs which is another $10,000,” said Mrs. Nockenofsky. “The judge already knows me and I win every year. You want to save money? Then stop making parents go through a hearing every year.”
Eli Hagler, assistant director of Yachad an international organization dedicated to enhancing the life opportunities of individuals with disabilities, described the current process as “an unnecessary burden” on parents.
“They are being pulled through the wringer and fought on services that they are entitled to,” said Hagler. “They have to hire advocates and take time off from work, just to get the state to do what it is supposed to be doing.”
With news of an overhaul on the city level, Mrs. Moseson is hopeful that special education parents may finally be getting a reprieve.
“I understand that Bill de Blasio is serious about his proposal to try to rectify this atmosphere, to work together, to shorten the process, to streamline things and not drag everything out and to make things easier for parents,” said Mrs. Moseson. “No one is looking to take advantage of the city. That isn’t the point and that has never been the point. I am cautiously optimistic that things are moving in a positive direction so that this nightmare will finally end for parents.”
“When the mayor sees that you are passionate about something then he gets involved and when people who are involved work on something, then things get done,” added Mrs. Nockenofsky. “This has potential and idealistically it could really become something and once people see how much New York City is saving then hopefully it could be expanded throughout the state.”
Mrs. Moseson praised Agudath Israel of America for its continued efforts on behalf of the special needs population.
“This took a lot of work, a lot of cajoling by the Agudah and other advocates,” said Mrs. Moseson, crediting Mrs. Leah Steinberg, director of special education affairs at the Agudah for her tireless efforts in this matter.
Mrs. Steinberg admitted to being in a state of shock at these latest developments and said there were many happy tears shed at the Agudah’s offices in the wake of the recent positive developments.
“This has been in the works for so long,” said Mrs. Steinberg, who became a frequent fixture in Albany as she lobbied for the special education reforms. Mrs. Steinberg remembered asking people to daven for her on her trips to the state capital, in the hopes that she would find the right words when she was addressing Senate and Assembly members. Clearly those efforts paid off as according to Mrs. Steinberg, “We got everything we wanted and more.”
Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz vice president at Agudath Israel of America described the city’s new action plan as a complete turnaround from the policies of the Bloomberg administration.
“About four years ago, Mayor Bloomberg decided to aggressively fight parents and he went up to Albany to try to eliminate the mandate that serves these kids,” said Rabbi Lefkowitz. “The Senate and the Assembly both understood the importance of these programs so they wouldn’t eliminate the mandate but the mayor was determined to make life tough for these parents.”
Below video: Mrs Steinberg, Mrs. Moseson. Mr Altabee and chaskel bennett talking about special ed.
Rabbi Lefkowitz credited Mayor de Blasio for his efforts on behalf of special needs children.
“As a city councilman he was always sensitive to the needs of these kids, as public advocate he helped us with various issues and now as mayor he has shown us again how he is prepared to do the right thing.”
Senator Simcha Felder, the grandfather of a special needs child who spoke passionately in the Senate about the agony that many parents endure, said he remains cautiously optimistic that brighter days are ahead and credited Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for tens of years of efforts on behalf of the special needs community.
“Family members have already been through so much and it is hard to believe and to trust any elected official, including myself ,” said Senator Felder. “But we are confident that the mayor is going to keep his commitment and if there are any problems, the legislative option still remains open. Taking all that into consideration, I think we should feel positive about getting relief and getting it soon.”
Having the city and not the state implement new steps to help special needs children and their parents was a massive effort involving many players.
“This deal was reached because advocates from the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel and Yachad all worked together to pressure members to vote for this important legislation and once it was brought to the floor it was determined that it was better for everyone to have the mayor actually make this policy rather than having it mandated by the state,” said Jeff Leb, New York State director at the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, executive vice president at Agudath Israel of America, noted that the Jewish community has always been at the forefront of the fight for special needs children.
“We care about our special needs children in a very special way,” said Rabbi Zweibel.
Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein who sponsored the bill in the Assembly which was later tabled in favor of the mayor’s agreement said that in this case, political agendas went out the window.
“This is not about politics,” said Assemblywoman Weinstein. “This is about helping children. I don’t need the kavod of passing another bill so everyone can say, ‘Look what Helene Weinstein did.’ I just want the right thing to happen for our children and starting September 1st we are going to start seeing a difference.”
“This is a great, great moment and it’s not about the Jewish community,” added Assemblyman Dov Hikind. “It is about what is right and what is fair.”