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Special Education bill creates controversy

A little-publicized bill affecting special education was passed at the end of the New York state legislative session. While supporters feel it would benefit these students, school officials are worried about the precedent it might set.

Both the New York Senate and Assembly passed a bill that would require "the home life and family background" of special education students be considered by school officials deciding where to place them.  

Currently, if a public school district can't meet the needs of a special ed student, taxpayers end up covering the cost of private school for the child.

Special education student's needs would now include religious and cultural concerns.  This new criteria would give parents more leverage to argue their child belongs in a private school instead of their local public school.

Orthodox Jewish and Catholic groups are among those who support the bill, saying that children from some backgrounds are not prepared to function in secular schools.

Opponents of the legislation, including some local politicians in parts of the state, say it is too broad. The executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, Tim Kremer, agrees.

"That in our mind opens up a whole can of worms. And how do you define home life considerations, cultural aspects? [It's] pretty vaguely defined in this legislation," said Kremer.
Orthodox Jewish groups which pushed for the bill, argue this will help parents place their special needs children in private school, where many in their community, often including their siblings, are educated.

Opponents say the school districts will end up paying for more students to go to private school.

While the bill was primarily promoted by religious interest groups, Kremer feels its language opens the door to other groups of people.

"It is likely going to have other implications for other cultural interests, other religious groups, people who feel their child is not going to fit into the traditional education program and needs to be placed elsewhere," said Kremer.

Supporters of the bill say it will help streamline the process for parents who are petitioning the schools about the placement of their child.

But Kremer says the bill creates administrative and legal concerns for school districts, and could lead to unforeseen consequences.

"In our mind, this is really opening the idea of a voucher system here in New York for the first time."

Governor Andrew Cuomo still must sign the bill for it to go into effect.