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Don't Let Special Interests Hijack The "Special Education" Label

Most people in the Special Education community, as well as supporters of public schools generally, do not fully appreciate what a close call New York's public schools just had, or how devastating an impact the so-called "Special Education Placement Bill" will have if it finally passes and becomes law. (See article below.) Besides perverting the traditional definition of "Special Needs" to serve the needs of special interest groups, it will also bankrupt public schools across New York, leaving little money left in school budgets for kids with REAL special needs or for mainstream public school programs as well.

The wolf is at the door in terms of this bill being re-filed and voted in with a majority that over-rides the governor's veto. I hope you will let your friends, neighbors and colleagues know how dangerous this bill is, and encourage your elected representatives to oppose it.

New York Public Schools Dodge a Bullet...Actually a Bazooka!

The most important bill most people never heard of was vetoed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo last month. The bill, innocuously titled the "Special Education Placement Bill," would have altered dramatically the traditional definition of "special needs" in determining which children can have their local public school boards pay their private school tuitions. It would have siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars in public school funds to pay for the private - typically religious - education of tens of thousands of newly minted "special needs" kids. It also would have created a "back door" school voucher system for any parent or group with a good lawyer.

It is difficult to under-estimate how financially devastating this bill would be for New York's public schools, and yet many of the groups one would expect to be public school defenders were "asleep at the switch" as the bill's supporters - highly-organized ultra-Orthodox and parochial school parent groups - pushed it through the legislature. Opponents were able to round up an eleventh hour veto from Governor Cuomo, but the bill's supporters plan to file it again, and this time they expect to have a veto-proof majority. Opponents feel their only hope is to galvanize public school supporters who may not appreciate how much this represents a bullet to the heart of traditional public education.

"Special needs" has traditionally been defined as a medical, mental, physical or psychological condition, like autism, Down's syndrome, blindness, cystic fibrosis, dyslexia, etc. The Special Education Placement Bill would have expanded that definition to include "home life and family background," a code for, among other things, religion and ethnicity. Under the terms of this bill, children who were completely "normal" under traditional special needs definitions, but who had been cloistered by their parents in terms of their social interaction - allowed to mingle only with their own religious, ethnic or cultural group, played and socialized exclusively with kids who dressed a certain way, ate a specific diet or attended a particular church, synagogue or mosque - would all be able to claim they were not "comfortable" in a secular public school setting and that public funds should pay for their private religious school or other unique educational environment.

The immediate beneficiaries of this law will be families of children at religious schools. But once public school money starts flowing to children for "home and family background" reasons unconnected with any clinically based need, there will be no limit to the imaginative arguments parents and their lawyers will come up with. Maybe their children have special aptitudes in art, music, drama or sports; or have always attended upper-class private schools and are only comfortable with other rich kids. Why will their claim to have the public pay for them to attend Andover or Exeter be any less valid than the claim of children who want public money to pay for their yeshiva or parochial school? Between 1st Amendment claims over public funding of private religious schools, and 14th Amendment equal protection claims over one family's "home life and family background" needs versus another family's, it is certain that this will make a lot of lawyers rich, while impoverishing local school boards.

Killing public schools by bleeding them to death financially and allocating their funding to special interest groups without even a public discussion about it, is not the way to address the very real issues facing public education in our country. Supporters of public schools, including traditional Special Education programs, as well as those who like to see democracy practiced in the sunlight rather than in dark rooms, had better come forward and make their voices heard.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.