Educational Choice For Special Students

Perhaps the most compelling observation in a discussion about a proposed school in East Hampton for special-needs children came recently from a parent of a 3-year-old with autism. The discussion concerned a town-owned site on Stephen Hand’s Path for which a private school offering specialized education had been suggested. Back in November, a number of South Fork school district superintendents objected to the idea during a town board meeting, saying that Gersh Academy’s proposed takeover of the vacant Child Development Center of the Hamptons property was not needed. “Our children are being taken care of,” the Springs School superintendent declared.

Not so fast, Julian Barrowcliffe of Sag Harbor, the father of the 3-year-old, said in effect. “The person to ask is never the service provider, but the service consumers,” he said.

Public school districts are in a tough spot. Faced with a state cap on tax increases, any additional costs to accommodate special-needs students might have to be offset with cuts elsewhere. Under federal law, districts are obligated to pay for students who attend private special-needs schools. 

The South Fork districts educate about half their students with autism alongside other students while the other half gets specialized attention at the Suffolk County Board of Cooperative Educational Services learning center in Westhampton Beach. 

Among the fears expressed by the school superintendents was that students who would go to a private school might never return to the general education population, becoming a long-term financial drain. Gersh Academy, in a letter to East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, said this was not true, that in its experience, many students are able to return to public schools after reaching their goals. In its letter, Gersh also refuted the idea that its services would cost local districts more than sending students to BOCES. 

In the end, Gersh, as a for-profit company, was found to be ineligible for the C.D.C.H. site. The fact remains that a number of parents were dissatisfied with the status quo and found the Gersh proposal worthy of consideration. Instead of stubbornly insisting that all was well, the school districts should have listened to the parents a little more closely. As Mr. Barrowcliffe suggested, the consumer’s voice is the one that really should count.

If a superior education for special-needs children is desired, the districts should be willing to engage in a public conversation about how to make that possible. School officials just saying everthing’s fine will not make the issue go away.