Special Ed Schools Fear Loss of State Funding

Eleven schools serving 1,500 blind, deaf and severely disabled children fear their students may get an inferior education under Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget.

Cuomo's budget would zero-out the state's annual $98 million contribution to the schools. Instead, tuition would be billed to the students' local districts.

Bernadette Kappen, the executive director of the New York Institute for Special Education in the Bronx, which serves 278 blind and visually impaired students from the metro area, said she worries New York City and the suburbs may not want to pay the average $70,000 a year tuition if the state stops funding them directly.

"The children that are physically disabled require a lot of special equipment to allow them to participate," she said, explaining the reason for the high tuition. "For children that are not able to speak they will use different kinds of communication devices that can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000."

And textbooks need to be converted to Braille.

In Nassau County, executive director Patrice Kuntzler shared those concerns. The Henry Viscardi School serves 185 metro-area students with physical disabilities including cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injuries. Last year, she said, 10 of the 16 graduates earned full Regents diplomas, which is unusual among students with special education needs. She said she can't see the city and local districts finding enough tuition dollars to make up for state support.

"How will they find that funding when they're struggling to find funding for all of their children?" she asked.

She added, if "the child with the most involved disability, will that child have an equal voice to another group of children?"

A spokesman for the state's budget division, Peter Morris, said federal law requires districts to serve children with disabilities. He added that these 11 schools (which are known as Section 4201 schools) have historically gotten their own state budget line, unlike other private schools serving children with special needs that bill their local districts.

He said the change in funding is for "consistency and equal treatment" because letting Albany set aside a special budget for the eleven schools results in higher spending.

But that doesn't quell the fears of the schools' administrators or the parents of their pupils.

"These schools exist because educators have failed to create mainstream environments where children with multiple disabilities can fully participate," said Tracy Ehrlich, whose 9-year-old daughter attends the Henry Viscardi School. "If the governor’s budget proposal is approved, many students may be forced to return to district schools that are ill prepared to educate them. If the Viscardi school, and the 10 other schools like it, lose enough students, they may be forced to close."

The city said it will keep its commitment to the students, however, by continuing to work with the private schools.

"We are currently evaluating the financial and educational implications of the governor's proposed changes regarding these state-operated schools," said department of education spokeswoman Deidrea Miller.

But Bernadette Kappen, of the New York Institute for Special Education in the Bronx, said evaluators in each district will make the call about where a child should go to school - whether that's a special education program in a regular public school, or the 11 specialized schools including her own. Right now, the children are evaluated by experts at the specialized schools.

"The child may not have an adequate evaluation," said Kappen, if they depend on the local experts. "For children who are deaf, the deaf people are concerned that it would be through an interpreter rather than through direct communication" they get at schools for the deaf.

Morris, at the state's budget division, said local evaluators are able to figure out placements. He said the process will be streamlined by having them make the call instead of requiring the state education commissioner to sign off on every placement.

Previous governors have proposed eliminating state funds for the schools. Last year, their budget was cut about 10 percent. Kappen said it would be more fair to make a similar kind of cut this year instead of wiping out their budget completely. Advocates for the programs plan to rally in Albany on Thursday.