Educators and parents at specialized schools serving some of Long Island’s most vulnerable children say their programs have been shortchanged and are asking for the same funding that public schools receive.
The schools, which serve developmentally disabled students, have not had an adjustment in their funding formula in years, leading them to routinely lose staff to higher-paying public school districts and complicating their efforts to recruit teachers, they said. They are waiting for the state to sign off on a bill that would provide additional funding this year — about $160 million statewide, according to the office of State Sen. John Mannion (D-Geddes), the bill’s sponsor.
The legislation, which is awaiting Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature, also would ensure equitable funding in the future for the schools and special districts that serve disabled students.
"We are not asking for more. We are asking for what is equitable," said Amy Fullone, whose 19-year-old son Damian is a student at the Developmental Disabilities Institute in Smithtown. "You have this funding and increase that is given to schools to support all children, and yet these specialized schools are not getting funding and not getting that increase."
The state Department of Education is calling for equitable funding as well. The department requested a 7% increase — equal to what public schools received this year — but a 4% increase was approved by the state both for preschool and school-age special-education providers for 2021-22.
Statewide, the schools serve preschoolers who are developmentally disabled, ages 3-5, and children with special needs, ages 5-21. There are about 50 state-approved providers that operate preschools on Long Island and more than 15 that serve older children with developmental disabilities. They are nonprofit, but are also state-funded and must be approved by the state education department.
Many of the children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy or other developmental disabilities and are placed in the specialized schools by their home districts.
The preschool programs are funded by a mix of county and state dollars. Schools serving older students are funded mostly by the state, but local districts pay tuition for their students to attend them. Advocates say teachers who leave for the public schools typically are paid $30,000 more a year, making it difficult to hire and retain staff.
Mannion’s bill unanimously passed the State Legislature in June. In a September letter to Hochul, Mannion wrote that many of the special-education programs have struggled to keep their doors open and that the lack of funding could lead to "thousands of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities without access to the free and appropriate education, required by law, that they also deserve."
Madia Coleman, a spokesperson from Hochul’s office, wrote in an email that the governor "intends to review this bill when it reaches her desk, as she does all legislation that reaches her desk."
"The public schools have benefited from all the funding, which they richly deserve," said John Lessard, CEO of the Developmental Disabilities Institute in Smithtown, which serves about 800 children from Long Island and New York City. "I just can’t for the life of me fathom why kids with special needs have to be treated differently."
Leaders at schools serving developmentally disabled students say they have not had an adjustment in their funding formula in years, making recruitment and retention of educators difficult. The State Education Department is hopeful that recently passed legislation will lead to equitable funding for these schools.