Bloomberg Takes Aim at Special Ed Costs

Mayor Bloomberg called on state legislators Monday to make it harder for special education students to attend private schools at taxpayer expense.

In his testimony before state legislators in Albany on Monday, the mayor said the city spends $100 million for 4,000 students to attend private schools when the public schools can't meet their needs.

Bloomberg said these students should be required to try the public schools before taking legal action. Right now, they can take their case to a special hearing officer before even setting foot inside a public school facility, as long as they've considered a public school option.

"We can provide services to those students at a fraction of that cost," Bloomberg said.

But Kim Sweet, executive director of the group Advocates for Children, said the mayor is exaggerating the added costs of private tuition.

"This particular salvo is aimed at a very easy target that people like to blame, and blame whenever there is a fiscal problem," she said. "But in fact it's a relatively small amount of money for the school system, and it's not going to solve their problems."

Sweet said there's actually very little difference between the dollars spent on private and public schools for special education students because both can easily cost more than $25,000 annually compared to about $17,000, on average, for a general education student.

Sweet's legal team represents low-income families who have had to fight for private school placements. She said they still need to prove their child's needs can't be addressed by the regular public schools.

"The fact is that the city has been sending students with disabilities to private schools for years because it hasn’t made the necessary commitment to fixing a very broken public special education system," Sweet said. "If public school special education worked, we wouldn’t be seeing these private school costs."

Bloomberg also told Albany lawmakers that state mandates will increase special education costs by 13 percent from the current school year to the next one. He's asking the legislature to eliminate an annual bonus for retired city workers and to take other cost-cutting measures that would enable the city to save more money for public education, specifically to prevent teacher layoffs.