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The Autism Clause

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Michael Koffer at the Rebecca School, which costs $72,500 a year.  

There’s a reason one of Koffler’s role models is Alexander Hamilton, the great capitalist who created the nation’s first federal programs (to support the banking industry) and pushed new taxes to finance them. Koffler has done very well in the usually not-so-lucrative business of publicly funded education. He lives in a midtown penthouse with river views, and last year donated $1.25 million to endow the Michael C. Koffler professorship in autism at Pace University. “I’m a hardworking kid from Queens,” he says.

The Rebecca School, which opened this September, drew its first class of 48 students from all over the city, the suburbs, and as far away as Shanghai. When filled to capacity, the school will gross more than $14 million a year, and Koffler projects that he’ll start earning a profit in two years. He expects that all of his students will sue the city for tuition reimbursement, though he estimates that only half are even aware that they can when they first walk in the door. “It’s always welcome news,” he says.

What’s most surprising about Rebecca is not the $72,500 tuition—or the fact that it’s a for-profit enterprise—but that it remains a relative bargain among autism programs. With a Wal-Mart-like economy of scale, Koffler is able to economize by assigning two children to every teacher or assistant, rather than the one-to-one ratio standard among elite programs. “When other schools are charging $80,000, $88,000, $120,000,” Koffler asks, “wouldn’t the right response be to go with our system?”

This year, the New York City public schools have budgeted nearly $824 million to pay private schools to educate children the system can’t help, up from a little over $82 million a decade ago—in part because of the national autism explosion, a phenomenon nobody can explain. (The latest theory, out of Cornell University, suggests a link to television-watching among children under 3.) In the eighties, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimated that 1 in 10,000 kids would develop some form of autism; now the rate is 1 in 166, or about 750 born every year in New York City.

The Department of Education reports that there are 4,423 autistic kids in public schools: Educators’ experience in the classroom suggests numbers as high as 15,000. Most wind up in special-education classes, alongside emotionally disturbed and mentally retarded kids with one teacher for every six to twelve students, at an average cost to the city of $34,816 a head. It’s the rare autistic student who receives specialized behavioral therapy, even though the New York State Department of Health recommends it as “an important element of any intervention program,” to be carried out by a trained therapist between 18 and 40 hours a week.

“It’s not just ‘Hire a lawyer and win.’ It’s ‘Ask for a hearing and win.’ ”

In addition to special-ed classes, there are another 732 spaces for children on “the spectrum” in a handful of state-regulated private schools that have a tuition cap of $48,000 a year, covered by the state and city. But those schools tend to be picky about which kids they’ll take: cute recitations of every stop on the J train, yes; banging head on desk while moaning, probably not.

That leaves parents of spurned children scrambling to find an education wherever they can—Jersey’s famed Alpine Learning Group, their living room, now Rebecca—and then sue the city for reimbursement. The tactic is not unique to autism—more than 4,700 special- education suits a year are filed against the city on behalf of kids with all types of learning disabilities, about two-thirds of them seeking private school. (Compare that with Chicago, where about 150 parents sue, though the number of autism lawsuits is growing there too.)

Four years ago, when the city was spending $13 million annually on special-education lawsuits, the then–school chancellor Harold Levy pleaded with the President’s Commission on Special Education to intervene to stop what he called “abuse of the system.” “Parents see the opportunity for their child’s private education to be paid for at public expense,” he railed. Last year, the city paid out $53 million on those same special-ed lawsuits.

Critics of the current system—and there are many in the education community—contend that most of those payouts are awarded to parents who are deft at working the system and affluent enough to pay $450-an-hour lawyers on the gamble, a pretty good one, that they’ll get it back. Even current school chancellor Joel Klein admits as much: “No doubt there are inequities based on people’s ability to navigate the legal system,” he says.

Most cities and suburbs, including Westchester and Long Island districts, manage to offer some semblance of appropriate education in the public schools. Parents of kids with autism outside New York can and do sue, but as likely as not, they lose. “You go to suburban school districts and it’s a rarity they can’t provide the right services for a child,” says Regina Skyer, a social worker turned special- education attorney.


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