Supreme Court Decision Helps Parents Get Free Private Education for Disabled Kids

The United States Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that the New York school system must pay a private school to educate a disabled child, even though he had never attended a public school first.

“We are very disappointed in the court’s ruling, because it does not require the parents to place their children initially in public schools,” said Leonard Koerner, chief of the New York City Law Department appeals division.

The Freston case has wide implications because about seven million American children receive special education services, with 71,000 educated in private schools at public expense, according to figures from the federal Education Department. Districts usually pay for private education only if they cannot provide a suitable alternative for a child with disabilities. New York City pays tuitions for private education for about 7,000 such children at a cost of over $57 million.

The case involved the son of Tom Freston, a former CEO of Viacom. Ten years ago, when the boy was eight years old, he was diagnosed with learning disabilities. His father placed him in a small private school and won tuition reimbursements from the city of New York. The New York Board of Education brought the case to federal court, arguing that no child can receive reimbursement without attending a public school first. The case went to the Supreme Court after the Second Circuit Court ruled in favor of Freston.

Freston donated all his son’s reimbursements to charity.

The case dates back to the landmark 1975 special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requiring public schools to provide free and individually designed educational programs to disabled students.