When Should the Public Pay Private Tuition for the Learning Disabled?

This New York Times article describes the suit that former Viacom executive Tom Freston has brought against they New York City board of education. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case and will probably do so in October 2007.

Mr. Freston asks that New York City reimburse him for educating his son in a private school for children with learning disabilities (the annual tuition is $37,900). His son was diagnosed as learning disabled in reading and writing in 1997, and the city offered to place him in the Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education, where he could be given speech and language therapy in a classroom with about 15 students.

Without actually trying the Lab school, Mr. Freston placed his child in New York’s Gaynor School for children who display “learning differences.” This school has an even smaller teacher-student ratio of less than 10. City officials said the Lab program was suitable for Mr. Freston’s son and wanted him to try it, and the city halted the reimbursements it had been paying Mr. Freston.

The article reports that almost 7,000,000 students in the U.S. receive special-education services, and approximately 71,000 are educated in private schools at public expense, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Historically, school districts agree to pay for these services only after conceding they cannot provide suitable services. So the central question becomes “Do school districts have to pay for private school for disabled children if the families do not first try out public programs (or other programs offered by the school)?”

Some argue that no time should be wasted in placing a child in a less-than-suitable school environment. Others fear there will surely be more children certified as special ed and demanding tuition reimbursement should parents realize they are not required to first put their children in public schools in order to receive reimbursements. There is further risk that families with the most resources will take most advantage of the system, ultimately diverting resources away from less well off learning disabled children and others.

Mr. Freston’s attorney says the suit is about “principle and not money,” and that Mr. Freston is suing on behalf of others who are indeed less well off. Mr. Freston has donated the roughly $50,000 in reimbursements he has received thus far to help finance tutoring for first graders at New York’s Public School 84.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) strives to protect disabled children who have been historically ill served in public schools. But it can be used to finance expensive programs for some disabled students, while students in overcrowded or poorly taught mainstream classrooms have no avenues for recourse.

Mr. Freston’s son is now 17 and attends mainstream classes, a success for which Mr. Freston credits private schooling. His case sheds new light on the unintended consequences of IDEA and similar programs. Federal law urges that disabled children be placed in the “least restrictive environment,” but Mr. Freston uses IDEA in his effort to keep his child in an environment where he would be surrounded only by children with disabilities. “It’s the exact opposite direction which the law says we’re supposed to go," says Freston’s attorney.

Berger, Joseph. “Fighting Over When Public Tuition Should Pay Private Tuition for Disabled.” New York Times, March 21, 2007.

Reference http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/21/education/21education.html?ex=1184817600&en=c0aad6a8f1020032&ei=5070 (free registration required to access article).

Added by Bob Jarvis