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New York May Weigh Students' Culture in Private Placements

A bill awaiting action from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would require school districts to consider cultural factors when deciding on private placements for students with disabilities.

New York districts, some of which do not have the capacity to teach all of their students with disabilities in their own schools, often turn to private schools to educate these students instead. Typically, in New York and around the country, these placements are based solely on the students' educational needs.

The bill approved by the state's legislature would expand that consideration. Districts would have to consider the type of clothing a student's family wears, the language they speak at home, and the like.

Families could argue that a particular placement wouldn't suit their child's needs if it didn't account for these factors, the state assemblywoman who sponsored the bill told The New York Times.

Brooklyn Democrat Helene E. Weinstein told the Times that a family's contention that a child's placement would harm their ability to learn, based on the family's background, would have to be documented.

The bill was backed by religious groups, The Wall Street Journal said, including the New York State Catholic Conference and Agudath Israel of America.

Some Jewish groups told the Journal that children accustomed to strict dietary rules, wearing conservative clothes, and reading and writing in Yiddish, have difficulty learning when placed with other children.

"They can become overwhelmed by social and emotional factors," said Naomi Nadata, program director for CAHAL, an organization that provides special education programs at eight Jewish day schools in Queens and Nassau County, in the Journal. "They will regress, and they can shut down, and it would make it really difficult to reach them."

But opponents say if the bill becomes law, it will be a financial burden for school districts because of the costs of some private schools. Opponents also said it would promote religious and cultural segregation in schools.

Jay Worona, the general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, told the Times that it was wrong to use taxpayers' dollars to subsidize individual choices in private, segregated settings. "That is anathema to the pluralistic values upon which public education was established," he said.

(New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been attacking the use of private placements in his district for some time. His district spends about $100 million a year on private education for 4,000 students.)

Weinstein, however, who told the Times cost wasn't a focus of legislators, said she believed any cost increase would be offset by savings, in part by speeding up school districts' decision-making when parents appeal placements.

"There will be less long, drawn-out annual placement hearings, which will save the locality, as well as the parents, money," Weinstein said.

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