When it comes to special education, it’s not hard to find fault with the NYC public school system. But my issue this week is the City’s private schools.

Last spring, my husband and I waited anxiously for callbacks from the “Ivy League” special education schools that we fell in love with during our September tours, where we saw small classes of kindergarteners with autism sweetly and successfully reading books, doing math and maneuvering their little bodies into yoga poses like cats and candles and tables. We checked our answering machine hourly, hoping that Brooks would get one of their three or four open spots — and that we would somehow figure out how to pay the tuition.

This spring, I’ve been watching families from Brooks’s old preschool go through the same process. I’m glad to report that those who’ve secured private school placements do seem to be having an easier time with DOE funding than our contemporaries did last year (simply put, if the DOE admits that they have no appropriate public education for your child, they need to bear part or all of the cost of an alternative private setting). Of course, overall, getting that funding is still a tremendously difficult and stressful endeavor. And one particular practice within private schools greatly disturbs me.

What I’m referring to is the ubiquitous non-refundable deposit to hold the spot, which is often at least $5,000. Did I mention that it’s non-refundable? In our experience, admissions directors were not completely unreasonable — you could often negotiate stretching the deadline date, but there was no negotiating the eventual delivery of that jaw-droppingly large check.

Is there something I’m not getting here? These schools have mile-long waiting lists, so there wouldn’t be a problem filling the spot and getting the tuition from another family. And I’m not unsympathetic to the schools’ need to handpick students so that they can build appropriate classes, and that last-minute changes generate extra paperwork. But not $5,000 worth.

One exception to the general craziness: Gillen Brewer was very open to negotiating a fee that my husband and I could afford, and making that amount refundable if a better option for Brooks came along. They fully understood that as special education parents, we were looking into many options, both public and private, and that admissions dates were all over the map. That was a refreshing approach, but entirely unique.

I’m told that this is how it works in all New York City private schools, that the parents are wealthy, and the schools do it simply because they can. But to do it with special education? It seems to me that the schools are taking advantage of the very population they claim to serve.


This post was originally published on Inisdeschools.org.