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The Autism Clause

A handful of new schools charge up to $140,000 a year to educate an autistic child. Who can pay that much? Anyone with the right lawyer.

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Maggie Eigen and her son, Jake, 7, at the McCarton School; later, at home with sister Charlotte  

I t’s not entirely clear what’s wrong with Jasir Abdullah-Musa. When a fire engine screams by, he cries. When a fly buzzes into a room, he descends into tantrums. At his family’s home in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, he flings his chubby 5-year-old body from couch to couch, ramming his head into the cushions and shifting between twisted poses. Jasir has a habit of recounting his daily routines ad infinitum—down to the color of the stripes on the bus and the menu at McDonald’s—but as he sizes up the stranger in his living room, he doesn’t say much, except to bellow “I want Rollos!” and “Noooo!

If his mother, Melissa Glasgow, had accepted the Department of Education’s contention—that Jasir is simply language-impaired—he would be in a public-school special-education class with two teachers and eleven other kids with motley disabilities.

Last spring, however, she went searching for alternatives—and wound up in an office building on East 30th Street that would soon be home to the Rebecca School, a new for-profit academy for autism spectrum disorders—classic autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and the vague PDD-NOS, short for “pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified.”

Jasir interacted with the school’s chief psychologist while Glasgow fantasized about the amenities: a video camera that wired to a central TiVo-like system, for ready replay to parents; a ceramics studio and music room; lights that don’t buzz or flicker; two “sensory gyms” full of swings and ropes and trampolines.

After a few hours, Jasir was invited to join the school, with promises of eventually being mainstreamed out of special education altogether. The tuition would be $72,500 a year, but the Rebecca School’s representatives insisted that that wouldn’t be a problem for Glasgow, who fields customer complaints for the MTA.

An administrator from the school handed Glasgow a folder and pointed to a page inside. “If you want to come here,” the rep said, “you ought to call one of these people on the list.” It was HEADED REIMBURSEMENT FOR PLACEMENT MADE BY PARENTS IN A PRIVATE SCHOOL. Below was contact information for five lawyers and basic instructions on how to sue the city of New York.

New York City’s open checkbook for autism is at the heart of the business plan for the Rebecca School, the latest in New York City’s fastest-growing chain of for-profit educational institutions. When it’s fully booked, perhaps two years from now, Rebecca will enroll 200 kids, making it the first megastore in a circuit of tiny boutique schools. The company launching it, Manhattan-based MetSchools, Inc., has spent $7 million to renovate 52,000 square feet of midtown office space (previously home to New York’s biggest abortion clinic).

MetSchools CEO Michael Koffler, 50, is not an educator himself but a graduate of suny–Buffalo who majored in accounting and business administration. He has a Queens accent that twists its way around spools of special-education jargon, and a commonsense profit model: He finds niches where New York City’s overstretched public and private systems have failed to tread. Like any business, it needs a revenue stream, and Koffler’s comes from city and state government.

His entrepreneurial strategy is rooted in the national reforms sparked by a 1972 exposé of Staten Island’s hellish Willowbrook State School, which shocked Congress into making sure disabled kids got a formal education. (At the time, nearly 2 million didn’t.) The result was a new law entitling all children to a “free and appropriate public education”—or a city-funded private one.

Realizing that there was more government money for disabled children than there were schools to serve them, Koffler and his wife, a speech therapist, opened the Sunshine Developmental School, their first special-education academy, in Queens Village in 1986. It started with just twelve children, ages 3 to 5, providing various therapies—speech, physical, and so on—to help developmentally disabled kids catch up with their peers. Today, the school, now located in Jamaica, enrolls more than 300 and collects $21,821 per student from the city each year.

From Sunshine, the Kofflers developed a thriving business out of what would seem to be a ruinous venture: educating poor kids. They proceeded to open other schools for children with special needs in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg, among other neighborhoods. The government revenue streams multiplied, with payments from the city’s welfare agency, the Board of Ed, and the Administration for Children’s Services—adding up to at least $79 million in all.

In 2000, Koffler set his sights on the wealthy, finding baby-boomlets around the city where schools hadn’t yet caught up—like the financial district, where he opened the Claremont Preparatory School last year, with an annual tuition of $26,500 and room for up to 1,000 kids, though enrollment falls far short of that now. He briefly extended his reach to become lead partner in a chain of preschools in Georgia and North Carolina, then sold it off after trying for an IPO. (Koffler claims he lost $2 million on the deal.)


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