Meeting the Religious Needs of ALL Students: An Op-Ed

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Monday, September 24, 2012

By Jay Ruderman

Dear Friends,

I am writing to share with you my op-ed from last week’s Albany Times-Union. It addresses the legal right of all children to attend the private schools that reflect their families’ religious beliefs and traditions—including children with special educational needs. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject in the comment boxes below.

— Jay Ruderman

How to Meet Religious Needs of Students

It has been legally established for close to 40 years that children in America with disabilities are entitled to a “free and appropriate education.”

Full inclusion in access to education is a right — one that is legally protected in our country.

This right for a “free and appropriate public education” — commonly called FAPE — was codified in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Further protection of the education rights of those with disabilities was secured with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004.

What happens, though, when a school or school district cannot provide a FAPE?

Then a student is permitted under the Rehabilitation Act to attend another public school, or a private school, which can make available that education. And as the law requires, costs for the student attending the new school are the partial or total obligation of the school district from which the student transferred.

Yet what neither the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 nor IDEA provide for are the needs of children with disabilities who are brought up in devout religious traditions, where public school is not an option because of these beliefs. These children face additional challenges, because the laws do not allow for public money to be spent for the secular portion of an education that also meets the religious and cultural needs of the students.

Earlier this summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill which passed with strong support in both houses of the state Legislature that would change the FAPE reimbursement regulations and require public school districts to pay costs associated with children with disabilities learning in an environment — such as a religious academy — in which they are most comfortable.

It is encouraging that New York legislators are marshaling support for another go at passing the bill — which is expected to include overriding another Gov. Cuomo veto — in a special legislative session this fall.

In certain situations, it is both appropriate and fair that there be public reimbursement of the cost of educating a person with disabilities in a private school that conforms to their religious beliefs.

There is a long and successful track record of public spending on private education; this is the case with Pell Grants, publicly financed scholarships which can be used to attend public or private colleges or universities, including places like Notre Dame or Yeshiva University.

There are needs-based government vouchers that parents apply toward the payment for child care — whether it is an Islamic academy, a Jewish community center, or a Catholic Charities child care program. And what about charter schools, which get public funding but are not subject to the rules and regulations by which public schools must adhere?

Our foundation first became involved because Jewish children with disabilities could not in many cases attend Jewish day schools. They were shut out from a Jewish education on the basis of nothing else but their disability. It was unacceptable.

An appropriate education in a comfortable learning environment is the right of all our children. Achieving what’s right is often difficult — and it can take a while. Most certainly, it can get done.

In assuring the educational rights of all children, those with disabilities and those without, getting it done requires the private and public sectors working cooperatively — and recognizing, honoring, and sharing obligations.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation.

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