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Is a program to fund special educationa special boon to rich New Yorkers?

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Gail E., a single parent and a public-school teacher, well knows the benefits of free education. But she also knows that her 17-year-old daughter, who has a learning disability, couldn't enjoy them. She needed special attention -- smaller classes, and curricula designed to help her overcome her difficulties. Keeping in mind her limited budget, Gail decided to send her daughter to Winston Prep, a specialized school for disabled kids on the Upper West Side. "She's a different person," says Gail. "They've really made her feel like she can learn."As recently as a few years ago, parents like Gail would have had to shoulder the cost of such specialized education themselves, or make do with whatever programs their local public schools happened to provide. But because of a 1993 Supreme Court ruling, localities are now required either to provide adequate education for students with physical or developmental disabilities or to pay for the students to be schooled elsewhere -- at up to $20,000 per student per year.

In New York, 500 students are covered by that program, known as Carter (after the case, Florence County School District Four v. Carter). And though some parents apply the money toward specialized schools, many parents use it to underwrite education at high-profile general education schools, such as York Prep, Dwight School, and Robert Louis Stevenson. This year, the arrangement cost the city $9 million and the caseload is growing.

Board of Education officials are now beginning to complain about a fact that had previously been an open secret in New York's wealthier communities: Carter funds are available not only to underprivileged families, but to all kids with disabilities -- regardless of the severity of those disabilities, and regardless of the financial standing of their parents. The greatest increases in Carter cases in the past two years, these officials are quick to point out, have occurred in Districts 2 and 3 in Manhattan and District 15 in Brooklyn, which encompasses neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope. "My gut tells me that certain parents want their kids in certain private schools," says superintendent Francine Goldstein, the executive director for student support services for the New York City public-school system, "and Carter is a way for those parents to get the Board of Education to foot the bill."

Carter funds are reimbursals, meaning that parents must first pay tuition out of their own pockets. Even the program's defenders concede that it ends up favoring wealthy parents -- not only those with the money to hire top-flight lawyers but those with the connections to get school administrators and well-placed educational consultants on board for the arbitration hearing that each child must undergo.

Donald Lash, a lawyer who represents low-income parents with learning-disabled children, says, "The only time I've done Carter cases is when the school is motivated and has some scholarship fund to make a loan to the parents." Otherwise, he steers clients toward approved programs within the public system.

As one woman from a top tax bracket whose two sons have severe learning disabilities says, "Look, we can afford the tuition ourselves, so I just give the money back to the school. Most families need help and I think it's our duty to get as much money to the school as possible."

Neal Rosenberg, a lawyer who frequently handles such cases, adamantly points out that no reasonable person would use their children as pawns in a money-saving scheme: "I don't have a single parent, rich or poor, who wouldn't trade having a child with no disability for paying the tuition themselves."

Nevertheless, the Board of Ed is implementing a new plan to make it harder for children to win Carter classification. And the first thing that entails is preparing for arbitration hearings, which often go uncontested simply to avoid the risk of incurring the parents' legal fees. "As we start to prevail in these cases," says Goldstein, "some parents will be less likely to take a chance because they might get stuck paying themselves." But the bigger problem -- that some wealthy parents believe their own needs take precedence over the public agenda -- may be greater than these administrators can address.


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