Cuomo mulls controversial special ed bill

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. (Jan. 19, 2012)

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. (Jan. 19, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

The clock is ticking for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to decide on a controversial special education bill that was sent to his office late Friday.

The bill, which earned bipartisan support from legislators upon passage last month, would require a student's "home environment and family background" be considered in special education placements.

Catholic and Jewish groups pushed for the new requirement, asserting that students from religious families are better educated in schools where dress codes and other rules conform to their beliefs.

East Ramapo School Board President Daniel Schwartz said Sunday that cultural background is an important consideration in finding an appropriate education for special education students. Schwartz said he has heard stories from Hasidic families of students who were misunderstood -- and misevaluated -- because of unfamiliarity with the community's religious traditions.

"Looking at this from the perspective of trying to get the children the best education, I don't understand why anyone would be opposed to this," Schwartz said.

Opponents call the bill a potentially costly unfunded mandate and an inappropriate mechanism to segregate schools. Passed in a package of noncontroversial bills, the legislation has drawn cries for a veto from statewide educator associations as well as a group of East Ramapo School District activists.

An online petition circulating in East Ramapo contained more than 400 signatures Sunday.

Parents in the East Ramapo School District, which has a large Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish community, assert the bill could cost millions of dollars in their district alone.

New York State Council of School Superintendents deputy director Robert Lowry Jr. said the bill's costs could include lawsuits spurring from the new requirement. The bill also could open the door for increased placement in private schools that aren't approved by the state, in which case local districts must foot the entire bill for the student, Lowry said.

"This will be an interesting test of his (the governor's) support for mandate relief," South Orangetown Superintendent Ken Mitchell said.

Cuomo is still considering his position on the legislation, spokesman Matthew Wing said Sunday.

Correction: Robert Lowry Jr.'s title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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