An education panel voted Wednesday to approve $38 million in additional funding to hire more attorneys to handle a mountain of legal challenges from families of students with disabilities.
The additional legal support will help the city address cases brought by families of students with disabilities, many of whom argue the public school system is not equipped to meet their children’s needs. Many of those families seek reimbursement from the city for private school tuition. The city is currently facing more than 15,000 complaints brought on behalf of students with disabilities.
In fiscal year 2022, the city paid nearly $1 billion to cover costs at private schools for students with disabilities.
The additional funding, which was given the OK by the Panel for Educational Policy in a vote just before 10 p.m., follows comments by Schools Chancellor David Banks in August that some of the families have “figured out how to game the system.” He indicated the money covering private school tuition could be better spent on public schools.
Federal law says the government must cover the cost of private tuition if public schools cannot meet students’ needs. In New York City, families of students with dyslexia often sue the city to attend schools that provide a specific kind of literacy instruction. Families of students with severe emotional and behavioral needs often sue the city to cover the costs of schools that provide special psychological support.
As the number of cases has grown, the time it takes for them to be heard has also increased. The law requires the city to adjudicate the complaints within 75 days, but advocates said the average wait-time for families is almost a year.
The city is facing a class action lawsuit over the delays and a state mandated improvement plan.
Danielle Tarantolo, a lawyer at the New York Legal Assistance Group, which represents families in the class action suit, said she supports “hiring additional staff if that is necessary to protect families’ rights.”
The city’s response to the cases seeking reimbursement of tuition has fluctuated over the years. During the Bloomberg administration, the city hired more attorneys to litigate the cases. Under the de Blasio administration, officials said they would take a less “contentious” approach, promising to expedite settlements and refrain from relitigating decisions.
Some parents worried the hiring of additional attorneys signals that the administration plans to take a more adversarial approach.
“This is about helping the DOE not to provide services to families,” Heather Dailey, a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education, said at the panel meeting Wednesday night.
But administration officials said the goal is not to deprive students of support, but to expedite the process to get them the help they deserve.
“The bottom line for us is not defending the DOE,” said Liz Vladeck, general counsel with the education department. “The bottom line for us is getting students what they need.”