The New York City school system must pay private school tuition for disabled children, even if the parents refuse to try public school programs first.
On October 10, a 4-4 Supreme Court split upheld a ruling that the New York City school system must reimburse parents of a child with special needs such as attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) for tuition at a private school, even if the child has not first attended a public school. Under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, schools are required to provide a “free appropriate public education.” Parents are allowed to seek reimbursement for a private education if they show that the public school’s services cannot meet their child’s needs.
In 1997, the plaintiff, Tom Freston, rejected a special-education plan proposed by the New York City school system for his then-eight-year-old son, who has ADHD and learning disabilities. Freston won a 2006 case, arguing that his son should not have to “try out” a public program that he felt was clearly inadequate. Because the Supreme Court upheld the 2006 decision, with a split (Justice Anthony Kennedy recused himself from the case), the case will not set a legal precedent outside of the circuit, which includes New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.
“This is certainly a victory for this family. For the disability community as a whole, it’s not as solid a victory as we had hoped for, but it’s a limited step in the right direction,” notes disabilities advocate and attorney Robert Tudisco. What good may come from litigation like this, which does not set a legal precedent? Tudisco hopes it will “encourage more schools to design IEPs in the context of a child’s needs, rather than piece together a program based on the services they already have available.”
Freston, a former Viacom executive, brought the case on principle, and he has donated the approximately $21,000 per year tuition reimbursement to the New York City public school system. In a statement, Freston said that he wanted to “ensure that our government, as a matter of public policy, fulfills its obligations to families by ensuring they have access to suitable special-education programs.”
-as reported in the December/January 2008 issue