Wednesday, March 21, 2007

When should school districts pay for private special education?

The New York Times ran an interesting article about a case to appear in front of the Supreme Court.

Tom Freston, the former chief executive of Viacom, the company that runs MTV and Comedy Central is worth $85 million. In 1997, his son, then 8, was found to be lagging in reading. The NYCDOE offered his son a coveted spot in the Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education, a competitive school on the Upper East Side that also has classes for students with moderate disabilities. He would have been placed in a classroom with 15 students, and given speech and language therapy.

Freston chose to place his child in the Stephen Gaynor School on the Upper West Side, where students, in Gaynor’s language, display “learning differences.” While the city is required by federal law to pay for private programs for disabled children when it cannot provide appropriate programs, city officials said the Lab program was suitable for Mr. Freston’s son and wanted him to try it. After two years of reimbursing the Frestons for a large part of the private school tuition, the city stopped.

Now Freston wants his due.

Although the Supreme Court will hear this particular case, it has implications which are far-ranging. The real question is: Do school districts have to pay for private school for disabled children if the families refuse to try out public programs?

The answer should not be an over-powering "yes" or "no"; the Supreme Court would do well to decide this case in a narrow judgement. That is to say, they should decide whether the city owes Freston the money or not, but should go on to state that each case must be decided independently.

Let me indicate some points. There is no evidence that the program that the city offered was bad or inappropriate to the Freston's son's learning needs. Therefore, I truly think that the Frestons should have attempted a trial run of approximately 3 months before making the decision to switch over (that could have been a good time to use many of the tracking programs that are out there such as Aimsweb or DIBELS).

However, I see that many programs that Local Educational Agencies (LEA's) offer are often staffed by poorly trained teachers, with little or no support to deal with special educational issues. I have gone in to see many programs that deal with children with autism which are so inappropriate. In these instances, it is necessary that parents DO NOT take the chance to enroll their children in those programs.

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