Tuesday, March 8, 2011

NY state budget cuts target schools for deaf, blind or disabled children

From Peekskill Patch in NY:

To help offset a $10 billion budget gap, Gov. Cuomo has proposed redirecting $100 million in funding from 11 schools that cater to children with disabilities.

These schools, commonly known as "4201s," have 1,500 students across the state. One is for physically disabled and health impaired children, two are for the blind and eight serve the deaf and hard of hearing.

In the lower Hudson Valley, most deaf students attend the New York School for the Deaf (NYSD) in White Plains. With 185 students originating from 57 school districts from Westchester to Putnam counties, the non-profit school is completely dependent upon state funding, which for this year totaled $12.9 million.

A small portion of the funding from the state comes from the federal government through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For the current school year, that funding totaled $315,000, according to NYSD.

NYSD Executive Director Janet Dickinson said that the elimination of state assistance would likely force the school to close.

"For the last 192 years, the state has supported deaf students' education, and now the governor's proposal is suggesting that funding be eliminated," she said. "The ultimate result will be that it would close our school and every other school for the deaf in the state."

According to Morris Peters, a Cuomo spokesman at the Division of the Budget, the proposed budget would give school districts the authority to decide whether or not to send students to 4201s. If a district were to send students to a 4201 school, an average of 85 percent of the costs would be reimbursed by the state in the next fiscal year, depending on the wealth of the district.

Peters explained that this delayed reimbursement model is currently used to assist other private special education schools.

"We're doing this because we believe that all of these private special education schools should be treated the same. There are a broad spectrum of special education needs," said Peters. "While the 4201s treat the more severe cases, they are not the most severe cases out there."

The state estimates that by changing the 4201 funding process, it will save $14 million annually beginning in the 2012-2013 fiscal year. By delaying the 4201 reimbursements to school districts until a year after services have been provided to students, Cuomo's budget shaves $98 million off of the 2011-2012 budget deficit.

Dickinson said that school districts already struggling with their own budget constraints wouldn't be able to take on the responsibility of paying for deaf students to attend NYSD.

"School districts are saying, 'Well, we don't have money to pay tuition, so students will have to go back and come to school in our districts."

Dickinson said that school districts would likely incorporate deaf students in classes with autistic and other learning disabled students, a move that would not meet their educational needs.

"Our students have communication issues, but most of them are college bound, so you can't put them in with learning disabled kids and an interpreter," she said.

While NYSD has the largest population of deaf students in the lower Hudson Valley, Southern Westchester BOCES operates a K-12 program for the deaf and hard of hearing on the Blind Brook School District campus.

Blind Brook Superintendent William Stark noted that students in this program often participate in after school activities and sports alongside mainstream students. During the school day, speech, auditory and occupational therapies are provided to deaf students as designated in their home school district's IEP.

"Socially, interpreters foster an open atmosphere for students to participate in after-school clubs, sports and other extra-curricular activities, providing students equal access to their hearing peers during all school related activities," an outline of the program states on the SW BOCES website.

But NYSD officials argue that a mainstream environment can be isolating for deaf students.

NYSD's Director of Communications Arlene Rice spoke about how placing current students in the mainstream could detrimentally affect their social development at a Feb. 17 public budget hearing hosted by Assemblyman George Latimer in Port Chester.

"A lot of our students have been in the mainstream, and it's isolating," she said. "Those students were never asked to dances or proms and couldn't participate in sports or other extracurricular activities."

Jackie Thorne, a teacher at NYSD, echoed Rice at the hearing.

"Local school districts are not at all prepared for the influx of these kids with very specific educational needs," she said. "When our schools are properly funded our kids do amazing things; they go to college and get wonderful jobs. When they're in the mainstream struggling to communicate with their peers and teachers, they don't thrive; they become isolated and depressed."

One parent of a 3-year-old student began crying as she discussed in a video on the Deaf NY Action website that NYSD's preschool program has improved her daughter's language skills.

"She was born at 24 weeks and has a significant hearing loss and visual disability as well," the parent said. "The [mainstream] preschools were too loud, too noisy and we felt they couldn't provide an education. It was clear to us as soon as we walked in [to NYSD] that this was the school for her. Her language skills have improved and she loves coming to school each day. I can't imagine what we're going to do without it."