Costs Soar to Send Students with Disabilities to Private Schools

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WNYC has learned that the cost of sending students with disabilities to private schools soared by more than 50 percent in the last school year - to almost $89 million. WNYC's Beth Fertig has more.

REPORTER: Parents of students with disabilities can seek reimbursements for private school tuition IF they can prove their children's needs can't be met in the public schools. The number of cases has been growing steadily in recent years, to more than 4,300 in 2007-2008. The city also paid out nearly $89 million - an increase of $31 million from the previous year.

The education department's chief attorney, Michael Best, says that spike is partly because the city had to settle a backlog of cases following a class action lawsuit. He also claims some parents are abusing the system.

BEST: In many cases parents have no interest in the public schools and are just looking for a subsidy for private school tuition.

REPORTER: The education department hired more attorneys and paralegals to handle these cases, and to challenge those the city considers unworthy of taxpayer funded tuition. But George Zelma, an attorney who represent families of children with disabilities, claims it's a myth that families abuse the system. He says the city is now putting up too many hurdles.

ZELMA: If we get into litigating to save money rather than meeting the needs - the individual unique learning needs of students I think we're sort of out of focus.

REPORTER: Zelma argues private schools for children with learning and physical disabilities can help save the city money in the long run by assisting these students to become productive taxpayers. Private school tuition is more than $34,000, annually, according to the city. For WNYC I'm Beth Fertig.