HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Accessing Public Funds for Special Education in Jewish Day Schools

by Benjamin Mann and Deanna Stecker Issue: Money Matters

Jewish day schools strive to teach students challenging academic content in a range of disciplines, to create caring communities of moral sensitivity, and to graduate future leaders of the Jewish people. This broad set of expectations and aspirations leaves Jewish day school leaders stretching limited resources to accomplish many goals.

Including students with special needs adds to the already formidable challenges faced by Jewish day schools, due to the high cost of resources required to meet such students’ learning needs. A PEJE study of special education programs reported that the cost of special education programs ranged “from a few thousand dollars to $18,000 above regular day-school tuition.” Most Jewish day schools are unable to cover these extra costs through their regular operating budgets.  Jewish day schools have often relied on parents of students with special needs to pay the additional costs.  In some cases parents pay for their children’s private special education services, including extra supports such as aides and specialists.  In other schools additional tuition is charged to parents of students with special needs. While there are also laudable cases in which the family with a child with special needs offered financial support to the local Jewish day school so that a special education program could be developed to meet the child’s needs and then other children’s as well, families with fewer financial resources are not able to provide these supports, which creates an inequitable situation in which access to Jewish education is limited to the wealthy.

One source of funding for special education programs that does not place the financial burden on the families is the government, which by federal law is required to provide publicly funded special education services to students regardless of where they are schooled. At Schechter Manhattan, we have successfully engaged with the local educational agency, in our case the New York City Department of Education, to bring publicly funded special education services into our school for those students who are eligible. Here we describe the challenges of accessing public funds for special education and the strategies we have used to do so.

The Individual with Disabilities Education Act: Provisions for students with disabilities in non-public schools

The federal law governing special education in the United States is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was renewed and amended by the United States Congress in 2004. While most of the law pertains to public schooling, key provisions of IDEA detail how special education is to be provided to students whose parents enroll them in non-public schools. These provisions are outlined in documents produced by the United States Department of Education (Children with Disabilities Placed by Their Parents in Private Schools: An IDEA Practices Toolkit, 2003; The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: Provisions Related to Children with Disabilities Enrolled by Their Parents in Private Schools, 2008). These provisions apply to Jewish day schools and other non-public schools alike, and understanding IDEA is the first step to accessing public funds for special education in non-public schools in the United States.

IDEA establishes that students with disabilities have the right to a free appropriate public education in a least restrictive environment in public schools. IDEA also includes provision for some federal funds to be allocated toward educating students with disabilities in non-public schools. The local educational agency (LEA), or school district, where a non-public school is located is obligated to allocate a portion of federal IDEA funds towards special education students placed in non-public schools.

IDEA prescribes that federal funds may not be used to finance current levels of instruction in a private school or for the general needs of students enrolled in a private school. These provisions pose challenges for non-public schools, as they need to make arrangements for the funds that are available to be spent only on services for eligible students.

IDEA does not offer clarity about the extent and types of services to be provided to students with special needs in non-public schools, leaving those decisions to the LEA. Since there are thousands of LEAs, each operating in different states and contexts, those determinations are often made “in an arbitrary and capricious manner” (Dale McDonald). This theoretical ambiguity leads to practical confusion, as students in different places throughout the United States receive significantly different services, and private schools in different locations navigate different systems and expectations for acquiring public special education funds. Catholic schools, the largest network of non-public schools, report significant difficulties accessing federally mandated special education funds.

Special Education at Schechter Manhattan

The Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan is a small Jewish day school in New York City, with an enrollment of 144 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. We have a strong commitment to meeting the individual educational needs of all of our students to the best of our ability as an institution. This mission has driven our intensive work to maximize special education services that are available to our students and bring those services into our building during the school day to the greatest extent possible.

In the 2014-2015 school year, there are 19 students, or 13% of our student body, with special education needs that have been formally identified by the Committee on Special Education (CSE) of the New York City Department of Education. All of these students are currently receiving special education services in our school building during the school day. These services include Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS), occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech/language therapy and counseling. To meet the needs of these students, we have two SETSS providers, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, a speech/language pathologist and a psychologist in our school whose hours range from a few hours a week to full-time. We are fortunate to have developed positive relationships with our providers, which we believe is one of the reasons that our program continues to be successful. These providers all bill the DoE for their work, either directly or through the agency that employs them, and the cost of the support services that they provide students does not impact our school’s operating budget.

Accessing these government-funded services was a complex process. Several years ago, we realized that, although a number of our students had an Individualized Education Services Program (IESP), we had very little knowledge about what services these students were entitled to and whether or not they were actually receiving the services. In some cases, parents had taken it upon themselves to arrange services after school, and in other cases, it was clear that parents had tried to arrange services for their children but were put off or overwhelmed by a system that required them to choose and contact providers themselves from a list given by the CSE.

Parents had also told us that, because our students often don’t get home from school until after 4, it was just too challenging to fit services in with after-school activities, dinner and homework. So, although these students were entitled to a range of publicly funded special education services, we were trying to meet these students’ educational needs during the school day with limited faculty, one learning specialist and one school counselor on staff. We did not have the financial resources to expand our staff and decided to explore what other options were available to us. In September 2012, we took it upon ourselves to enhance the special education program for our students with mandated services by bringing government-funded providers into the building. We accomplished this by means of a number of steps.

Know the Services Available to Your Students

We began by gathering paperwork, which we quickly discovered was a crucial step in the process. We combed through every student file and created a spreadsheet with the names of all of our students with IESPs, their ID numbers, dates of birth and effective dates of their IESPs. We then called parents of students who we thought had services but about whom we had incomplete information in order to be sure that we had information about every student. Soon, we had a complete database of all of our students and the services to which they were entitled.

Get to Know Your Local Committee on Special Education or IEP Team

For New York City students attending non-public schools, special education evaluations and services are managed by the ten regional Committees on Special Education (CSE). In other locations, this team may be referred by other names such as the IEP Team. We found that developing a relationship with the various people at our CSE has been key to the success of our program. We began by making sure that someone from our school was physically present, not just on the phone, at every CSE meeting for our students as they came up so as to build personal relationships with the CSE. We were better able to secure much needed services by sharing work samples, anecdotes from the classroom and in-school assessment results. And we were able to learn about and meet in person the people in the CSE office who were responsible for various steps of the process such as sending IESPs to parents, mailing out approval forms that allow service providers to begin providing services mandated on students’ IESPs, and assigning agencies that provide related services such as occupational therapy and speech. These relationships have proven to be vitally important year after year, particularly at the start of each school year when we set up services for each of our students.

Since the implementation of special education services in non-public schools varies widely from state to state and district to district, these relationships with public education officials are especially important to help Jewish day school educators understand the local systems for accessing services.

Show Parents That You Are on Their Side

Equally important to the relationship with the CSE or IEP Team is the relationship with each family of a child with special needs. We have worked closely with each family from the beginning of the evaluation process. We let parents know that we are there to advocate for them and help them through what is often a confusing and frustrating process. We make it clear to each family that we are fully supportive of their child and want to work with them to be sure that their child gets what he or she needs in order to be successful in the classroom. When parents have had difficulty getting paperwork from the CSE, we made phone calls to the right people. We help parents get to know and trust the providers working with their children in school and act as mediators if any issues come up. As a result, parents have come to trust us and are willing to work with us to arrange for the needed services.

Value the Providers

Our coordinator of learning support is the go-to person in the school for all of the outside providers that work with our students. Though this takes up a significant amount of her time, we have found that this time is crucial to the success of the program. She devotes many hours at the beginning of each school year to creating a schedule for each provider that is coordinated with each student’s schedule of classes and sessions with other providers. She also allocates space and basic supplies for each provider to use in their work with students, facilitates meeting times for the providers to meet classroom teachers, and sets aside time each week throughout the year to meet with the providers to ensure that things are going smoothly. She makes sure that they are aware of the school calendar and any changes in the daily schedule due to special programs, Jewish holidays or visitors.

When the providers are having trouble getting the paperwork that they need in order to be paid by the DOE, adding students to their caseloads, communicating with teachers or reaching parents, the coordinator of learning support gets involved and helps them resolve the issues. In turn, our providers have expressed satisfaction with their work in our school and have returned year after year. Although they are not employed by the school or on our payroll, we treat them as members of our community by inviting them to staff parties and other community events. This makes our school a desirable location for certified service providers to work.

Challenges

The literature and research indicate that government funds for special education are underutilized by private schools. This is in part due to the reality that implementation of IDEA varies widely from state to state and district to district, making it necessary for each private school to develop its own particular approach to working with the local educational agency. Private schools, including Jewish day schools, seeking to offer special education services should make efforts to reach out to the LEA as described above and pursue all legal avenues for getting IDEA funds and services. While IDEA places responsibility on the LEA to offer services to non-public school students, it is not in local school district officials’ self-interest to do so, and educators in non-public schools need to initiate action in order to access the services. In order to be successful they should develop collaborative relationships with LEA officials.

They should also know state laws so that they can advocate for their students to receive services. For example, some states allow on-site service provision in religious schools and others do not. Private school leaders need to deal with the situation they encounter in their given states and school districts. These are the types of steps that we took at Schechter Manhattan to navigate the waters of publicly funded special education in our non-public school.

Accessing public funds for students enrolled in non-public schools is challenging, but in our experience, it is worth the effort. Government funds are available to provide special education services to students who are eligible without impacting a Jewish day school’s already tight budget or placing an undue financial burden on parents of students with special needs. At Schechter Manhattan, this has allowed us to expand our services and more successfully educate Jewish children with special learning needs.


Benjamin Mann is the head of the middle school and Jewish studies coordinator at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan. benjaminmann@sssm.org


 

Deanna Stecker is the coordinator of learning support at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan. deannastecker@sssm.org

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Money Matters

Money of course does matter, in myriad ways, to the functioning of our schools. Just as important are the perceptions about money that circulate among stakeholders: How do funders decide where to put their money? What do employees think and say about salary and work conditions? How do parents and prospective parents understand the school's value? What are the explicit and implicit messages students learn about money? Authors present guidance and reflections on the systems of day school finances while exploring the questions around school value.

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