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The Solution to Poor Schools? Hire More Lawyers

The New York City school system has a novel idea for improving the quality of its special education programs:  hire more lawyers who can defend the schools more vigorously in special education hearings, so that they don't lose as frequently.  According to the New York Times(12/12/07), the city retained a team of private consultants to identify opportunities for saving money.  The consultants found that the city "had been forced to pay millions of dollars in private school tuition for students that could have been served by the public school system, (federal law requires reimbursement for private schools for children with special education needs that cannot be met through the public schools).  The consultants asserted that that many of the cases had been lost not because of the merits, but due to "staffing level deficiencies."  As a result of the recommendations, the city has doubled the size of its special education legal team by adding five lawyers and a dozen paralegals, a move expected to save the city $25 million a year. 

The article notes a recent Supreme Court case, Board of Education v. Tom F. that let stand a decision permitting a wealthy parent to obtain reimbursement for private school education under federal law, even where the parent did not give the public school an opportunity to address the child's needs and immediately places the child in private school.  The Second Circuit held that federal law does not require a student to remain in the public school to qualify for private school reimbursement. 

Presumably, the city would like to avoid paying for private school tuition where a parent doesn't even give the public school remedy a chance.  If that's the case, the city should try to change federal law to clarify that a public school solution is a prerequisite to obtaining reimbursement.  But hiring more lawyers to run up the cost of special education litigation and making it more difficult for parents to pursue meritorious claims seems like a backhanded way to reduce costs.  And worst of all, more lawyers won't improve the public school programs.  As Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children commented in the article: "I don’t think they are paying private school tuition because they don’t have good lawyers... I think they lose these hearings because they don’t have good programs.”

Is the New York solution appropriate?  Do parents abuse the special education system -- or do schools fail to meet their legal obligations?  Please submit comments below.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 12, 2007 at 02:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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