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LI school officials oppose special ed bill

A file photo of a teacher in a

A file photo of a teacher in a classroom. (June 16, 2006) Credit: Getty Images

Long Island's public school leaders are joining with colleagues statewide against a bill that could make it easier for students with disabilities to enroll in religious schools at taxpayers' expense.

The bipartisan bill, which sailed through the state Legislature on the final day of the session last month, would require a student's "home environment and family background" to be considered in special education placements.

The measure needs only Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's signature to become law; it is under review by his office.

Catholic and Jewish groups pushed for the new requirement, asserting that students from religious families could feel more comfortable in schools where dress codes and other rules conform with their beliefs. Current laws require that special education settings be appropriate for students and as unrestrictive as possible, and that cultural factors be considered in placements.

Public school officials fear a surge in parents using the new requirement to place their children in religious schools at public expense -- even if special education classes in those schools are not state-approved.

Those officials also suggested that the measure violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

"The state sends people in to see if schools meet its standards," said Stephen Witt, board president of Nassau BOCES. "What this [bill] says is that you can circumvent that based on the fact, for example, that the child is Orthodox and accustomed to a school where everyone dresses the same."

Witt plans to write to Cuomo on his board's behalf, urging the governor not to sign the bill. The measure also is opposed by the New York State School Boards Association.

School authorities added that the measure could force districts, already struggling with financial restrictions because of the state's new tax cap, to take on millions of dollars in new expenses. Tuition costs of private special education typically range from $40,000 to $100,000 per student each year, those authorities said.

"Where's the money going to come from to pay for that?" asked Bill Johnson, the Rockville Centre schools chief and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

One of the bill's chief sponsors is Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate's education committee. A co-sponsor is Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), a longtime advocate for students with disabilities.

Flanagan said that parents already obtain public reimbursement of special education tuition about 75 percent of the time. He added that one purpose of the bill is "to make sure families get reimbursed in a timely manner."

Religious leaders asserted that students of certain faiths might be traumatized by placement in unfamiliar school settings. Rabbi Zev Friedman, the dean of two Orthodox Jewish high schools in Lawrence and North Woodmere, cited the example of a young Orthodox girl, accustomed to modest skirts, who might feel uneasy among classmates wearing shorts.

"These subtle factors, which you wouldn't label technically educational, have a subtle psychological effect," Friedman said.

James Cultrara, education director for the New York State Catholic Conference agreed, saying that putting any students in school settings that seem strange to them "is going to be more restrictive."

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