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De Blasio eases private school access for special-needs children

The de Blasio administration will stop aggressively fighting parents who demand that New York City pay private-school tuition for their special-needs children, officials said Tuesday.

Under federal law, parents may seek tuition reimbursement if public schools can't accommodate their children's disabilities. But former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration, following a consultant's finding in 2007 that the city wastes millions paying such tuition for needs the public schools could accommodate, made it a policy to step up legal challenges.

De Blasio said the city would abandon that mandate, and the Department of Education would decide within 15 days whether to settle cases. The department also will speed reimbursements to families, reduce the paperwork needed to complete the process and eliminate the current annual review of cases.

"For years, I felt that there was an injustice that had to be addressed," de Blasio said. But he added, "there still may be some exceptional dynamics where litigation ends up happening."

There are about 170,000 special-needs children in the system, and the number in reimbursement cases are "in the thousands," he said. He said officials don't yet know how much the new policy would cost.

The issue is particularly important to the city's Orthodox Jewish community, whose advocates packed de Blasio's news conference Tuesday.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2012 vetoed legislation that would have required public school officials to take into account "home life and family background," which would have given religious parents more power to get public dollars for private schools.

In response to a question Tuesday, de Blasio said the city would not take such factors into account.

A bill that had been passed by the State Senate this year and was pending before the Assembly would have scuttled the annual review and made the process easier. The bill was pulled after de Blasio agreed to make the changes he announced.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said less than 20 percent of special-needs children who seek reimbursements come from the Orthodox community.


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