NYC council pushes back on schools chancellor’s criticism of city paying private school tuition for disabled students

·3 min read

New York City Council Members hit back at schools Chancellor David Banks Wednesday for suggesting that families of students with disabilities who attend private schools on the city’s dime have learned to “game the system.”

Banks’s comments, made during a parent advisory group meeting in August drew attention to the more-than $1 billion the city Education Department spent last year covering tuition costs for students with disabilities who can’t be accommodated in public schools.

“Over the last couple of years, the amount of parents who have now taken full advantage of that to get a private school education paid for by the DOE is blown completely out of the water,” Banks told his parent advisory committee. “Folks have figured out how to game this system and nobody even talks about this.”

City Council Education Committee Chair Rita Joseph (D-Brooklyn) fired back at Banks Wednesday, saying that “parents are not gaming the system, the system is broken.”

“My office has been contacted by parents and advocates who are both outraged and stressed by the chancellor’s suggestion of slashing this vital source of funding,” she added.

DOE officials at the hearing Wednesday attempted to explain Banks’s remarks.

Deputy Chief Academic Officer Christina Foti added, “I can assure you that the chancellor’s comments were not meant in the way that they were presented, and he has apologized in many forums about that.”

“The overwhelming majority of families that file due process claims with the DOE are… trying to find the best education for their children they can,” said Deputy Chancellor Carolyne Quintana.

The Education Department isn’t looking to “limit” private school reimbursements, but instead to provide better services in public schools so families don’t have to leave, Quintana said.

School districts including New York City are required under federal law to cover private school tuition for students with disabilities they can’t accommodate in traditional public schools.

In some cases, the Education Department agrees to the private school placement and sends payment directly to a “state-approved” private school, and in others, the parent enrolls their child in a private school, then sues the DOE for tuition reimbursement.

More than 10,000 students enrolled in private schools last year with costs covered by the DOE last year.

The number of families filing “due process complaints” — the legal recourse for students whose special education needs are not being met — has ballooned from roughly 4,000 a decade ago to more than 18,000 last school year, according to DOE General Counsel Liz Vladeck.

The Education Department spent roughly $1.2 billion last year on private school tuition costs, Vladeck said.

Vladeck said the “overwhelming majority” of families filing legal cases are just trying to do right by their children.

But she also claimed there’s a “very small number of bad actors, not families, but organizations, certain attorneys or consultants who have identified the challenges we have with our legal process as a profit opportunity.”

Families have also faced crippling delays for years in the overburdened due process system, but Vladeck said she hopes a shift to have the cases heard by Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings will speed up the process.

DOE officials faced a range of other questions Wednesday on holes in the city’s massive special education system, which serves nearly 200,000 students.

Joseph pointed explicitly to a Daily News expose from July detailing dire conditions for students with emotional disabilities in specialized District 75 schools for students with significant disabilities.

The story reported abysmal graduation rates and threadbare academic and extracurricular options for many students classified with emotional disabilities and enrolled in the separate schools, who are disproportionately Black and low-income.