The day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed a special education bill, supporters and opponents kept the debate going, even though chances of an override were unlikely.
The bill, passed by both the State Senate and Assembly, would have required school districts to consider home environment and family background when deciding whether a child should be placed in a private school because the public schools could not meet his or her special needs.
To school districts, the bill was an attempt to make it easier for private and religious schools to claim taxpayer dollars. But religious groups who lobbied for the legislation said it was misunderstood.
Leah Steinberg, director of special education affairs for Agudath Israel of America, which is based in New York City, said the bill was never about religion. Instead, she said, it was about making sure that a child who needs a certain kind of setting in order to learn would get it.
“This is for children who have socialization issues,” she explained, “who are maybe on the Asperger’s or autism spectrum and who cannot really integrate even regular life, for which it is necessary for them to have consistency. And the consistency must play out 24 hours a day.”
James Cultrara, director of special education at the New York State Catholic Conference, said there would have been a rigorous screening process.
“If it’s a matter of the parents making a preference, saying ‘I prefer my child to be in a Catholic school,’ that’s not good enough,” he said.
The bill also would have made it easier for parents to get tuition reimbursements by eliminating the need to reapply each year. Ms. Steinberg said this had been a hardship for families. She and Mr. Cultrara argued that removing the annual application process could save the state money on litigation.
The groups are hoping to have conversations with the governor’s staff in coming weeks.
In vetoing the bill, Mr. Cuomo cited “incalculable significant additional costs” if school districts had to take into account “any possible educational impact differences between the school environment and the child’s home environment and family background.”
Districts around the state feared this would have opened the door for more children to seek private school placements at taxpayer expense by giving weight to religious backgrounds.
The New York Education Department said it spent $150.8 million so far in 2011-12 on private school tuition and services, like tutoring, for students with special needs. That’s a 50 percent increase over the previous year, but about the same as in 2009-10. Officials said there was a lag time because it can take up to two years to settle a case.
More than 3,000 city students received reimbursements for private school tuition in 2010-11, because of their special needs.
Federal law requires that students with disabilities get a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive setting possible. If the child can’t get his or her needs met in the public schools, the family can go elsewhere.
New York State has approved of more than 100 private schools that can take students with special needs at state expense. Families can try to go to other private schools that are not on the state’s list, including religious schools, if they can convince an impartial hearing officer that there’s a need. Local districts pick up the bulk of those fees.
City officials said families who filed for impartial hearings won their cases 60 percent of the time, based on data from the past two years. However, when appeals are filed – by either the family or the city – the Department of Education said it won between 75 and 80 percent of the time.
The Education Department added more lawyers a few years ago, and officials said they were trying to improve the delivery of special education services.
City officials describe a “cottage industry” of private schools and lawyers that specialize in winning these payments. The families that bring these cases often hire experienced lawyers, though there are also nonprofit groups that help low-income families.
Advocates for the families have said they wouldn’t win so many cases if the city truly provided appropriate services for all children.