On heels of reams of unfunded state mandates that demand that our public schools become parent, cop, nursemaid, chauffeur, shrink, social worker, nutritionist, physician, personal trainer, godfather, and oh yeah, teacher, to our kids -- all mandated within the tightening, unforgiving stranglehold of the 2% property tax cap -- comes a hyper-focused special interest ditty that easily passed both houses of the legislature in Albany and awaits Governor Cuomo's signature.
At the very end of the legislative session in June, Brooklyn Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein and Long Island Senator John Flanagan (Chair of the Education Committee) slipped in a bill requiring (read mandate) that a school district's Committee on Special Education consider "home environment and family background" when deciding whether to place a special education student in the public school or in a private school.
The bill was so inconspicuously jammed in with hundreds of other bills at the end of the legislative session in June that Senator Suzi Oppenheimer, the ranking, senior Democrat of the Education Committee mistakenly voted for it and is now trying to convince the Governor to veto the bill.
As misbegotten as this bill is from a policy standpoint (where research favors in-school placements), the budget ramifications to school districts could be much more draconian. Speculation swirls that this was a special interest sop to the Orthodox Jewish community and the Catholic school lobby, giving families massive new leverage in getting their special education student placements paid for by the taxpayer. But remember that 2% tax cap? Let's say a district outside NYC (because the tax cap doesn't affect NYC) gets saddled with out-placing six special education students due to the new mandate -- costing a district hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and that additional cost is not exempt from the tax cap. The funds have to come from somewhere. You can't reasonably plan and budget for this. Now districts will have to choose which non-mandated programs to eliminate. Assemblywoman Weinstein admitted that in devising this bill cost was not a factor -- and that savings would be realized from expediting decision-making after parent appeals.
She can't be serious!
And Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver flat out said that he didn't even consider the cost. "We honestly don't believe that it's going to cost the school districts any more than is appropriate, than what's intended."
More and more, parents are unilaterally placing their children in non-public schools, paying for it and then lawyering up and fighting districts to retro-actively jam through the approval so that the taxpayer foots the bill without allowing the district to truly consider the appropriateness of the placement. School districts (and therefore taxpayers) have no control over these placements, and the costs for one student's placement out-of-district could, according to the Wall Street Journal, exceed $80,000 annually. It's also likely that this bill runs afoul of federal law -- so enactment of this bill will provoke an avalanche of litigation.
With the advent of the 2% tax cap, we already see a divide brewing between special education advocates and those public school stakeholders who are fighting to keep general education offerings, like AP or IB, like music and arts, like full-day kindergarten.
This breach is bound to get a lot worse.
Note to Assemblywoman Weinstein, Senator Flanagan, and Speaker Silver -- and all legislators who voted for this bill: if you really believe this is good policy (segregating special education students in private placements and having districts pay exorbitantly for that), then offer to pay for it. And when these and other legislators claim that they are working to stop and roll back unfunded mandates, don't believe them.
Governor Cuomo, please veto this bill.
Follow David A. Singer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidasinger