Friday, October 12, 2007

A Free and Appropriate Education

This week, a divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision requiring New York City to pay for private school for a child with learning disabilities. The child had never attended public school. In addition, the child is the son of Tom Freston, former chief executive of Viacom, who got a roughly $85 million severance package. In other words, this is a case about principle, not the actual educational options a child will face. But as such, it could be a win for gifted education -- maybe.

You can read an article about the case here. In essence, the ruling means that parents do not need to first put a child in an educational situation they consider inappropriate before they file for tuition reimbursement at a private school. States pay private school tuition for thousands of disabled children across the country. Sometimes these payments are as high as $50,000 for children who require residential treatment. Others attend private schools that are focused on specific disabilities such as autism or blindness. New York's position was that the public schools should at least be able to try to serve these children before the parents enroll them in private schools. By letting the ruling stand, the Supreme Court is saying that's not the case. If parents don't think the public schools can meet their children's needs, the kids do not need to fail first in order to go elsewhere.

Freston does not actually need the money to pay for his son's private school tuition. Indeed he has donated all his tuition reimbursement money to public school tutoring programs. He has fought the case so other parents without $85 million good-bye gifts from Viacom can have the same opportunities. (Though interestingly enough, the New York City schools offered Freston's son a spot in the city's Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education - in many cities, such options don't even exist).

I certainly don't begrudge children with disabilities the opportunity to attend whatever school serves them best at public expense. But when I read about some of the dollar amounts involved, it makes me a little sad that most profoundly gifted kids -- who have special needs whether they have other disabilities or not -- are often stuck in whatever regular school happens to be nearby. Some could be best served by boarding schools elsewhere, or private schools in town, but their families can't afford it. Sometimes parents have sought disability dignoses solely to qualify for special education programs that can help.

In states with gifted education mandates, this case could possibly open the door for some families who have chosen private schools over inadequate public school options to file for tuition reimbursement. It may or may not work. But the door is slightly ajar.


Jackie said...

Do you know if this child is twice exceptional? We are having a heck of a time finding a good fit for our 2E son - whether it's in public or private school. It would be useful to know if someone with a gifted and LD child managed to get tuition reimbursement. The 2E topic seems to be one that not many schools (public or private) seem to know much about.

k-man said...

Sorry to be contrarian, but I don't see a lot of good coming out of this decision to let the lower court ruling stand, especially when New York taxpayers realize the impact of the ruling. As a taxpayer, I'm appalled. I also don't see how this will really help the gifted, as no school system anywhere in the country has agreed to pay the whole cost for private schooling for a gifted child.

Most private schools are no better equipped to handle the truly gifted than are most public schools anyway. Private school administrators will say something like, "All of our children are gifted," and even accuse parents of truly gifted children of exaggerating or fabricating their abilities.

The liability of the public school system for educating the learning disabled should be limited to the average annual cost per pupil, not the whole tab for private schooling. And the plaintiff, by virtue of his millions, is not going to be a sympathetic figure for the average taxpaying Joe anyway. He will be seen as someone who managed to scam the system to pay for his child's private schooling.

For a long time, parents of gifted children have had to combat an undercurrent of opinion that their children need no special services and will be all right without them. But there is an even stronger undercurrent of opinion among many in the public, seldom mentioned, that says that the money we spend on special education for the retarded and learning disabled is a huge waste of resources on people who—mostly—will never be capable of working or otherwise contributing anything of value to society.

This latter opinion is based on the idea that these children's disabilities are not the fault of the taxpayer and spending large sums on those who cannot learn is senseless. Many people therefore see these particular children, often unfairly, as lifelong leeches. Former Colorado governor Richard Lamm exemplified this belief some years ago when he criticized spending $10,000 a year per handicapped child to teach—and reteach, and reteach—them to roll over.

Parents of gifted children who expect to be able to piggyback on this ruling are doomed to disappointment. I expect that overburdened New York taxpayers will revolt and demand changes in the rules once the weight of this decision sinks in.

Angie said...

I believe that changes at a 'court' level will do little to meet the needs of the individually gifted student. It comes down to the parents, school administration and school districts to work together to make sure that 'no child is left behind' or out.

Anonymous said...

K-man has a point. Taxpayers spend $50K per year on folks who at best may get a minimum wage job in lower level retail ()with considerable investment of resources. However, we spend little or nothing on the kids that have the potential to one day employ them... or cure them of a deadly disease. Our country will be just another third world nation within 50 years if we don't wake up.

I'm not saying that we should not help learning disabled children. It just seems to me that as a country we should spend at least as much money helping gifted children who are even more poorly served by our government education system.

tara said...

I'm a homeschooling mom of a profoundly gifted child. Our educational options, outside of homeschooling, are inappropriate at best. [The local school's approach to accommodations in math, for instance, would be to put my 7yo on a bus to the high school for algebra class with 14 and 15 year old students.]

I have excellent earning potential, but I am forgoing that money in order to stay home and provide an appropriate education for our child, an education that is simply not available anywhere else. If a child needs to be radically accelerated for every subject except for PE and music, then there should be a solution for that child--and parents shouldn't have to employ due process in order to have access to that solution for their child.

I agree with the anonymous comment about treating our highest-potential students with at least as much educational individualization as our lowest-potential students. We're just lucky that we, personally, can make do on one income and have the option to homeschool...many parents of PG children have no choice but to send their children to school and let them stagnate.

Anonymous said...

The question becomes what is "appropriate"? It appears that in public school land... appropriate means that the kid learned what was in the curriculum for that year. I believe that it no longer means that the kid learned everything he/she was capable of learning that year.

Once they are mediocre...that's good enough.

Brave new world!

k-man said...

This debate is older than we realize. I've been skimming Philip K. Howard's book The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America (1996 paperback edition). Some excerpts from chapter III, "A nation of enemies":

"Public schools have been the hardest hit by the rights revolution. As a part of government, they get the brunt of every new interpretation of due process. The buildings are also public and so, as advocates of the disabled remind them in threatening letters and lawsuits, every light switch must be low enough to satisfy their rights. The greatest problem, however, and the source of such conflict that it seems headed for revolution, relates to the rights Congress gave to students for 'special education.'

"...Drew P., a multihandicapped child from rural Georgia, suffers from infantile autism and severe mental retardation. Although the state provided an extensive education program, including an expert in autism, Drew's parents were dissatisfied. They heard about a special school out of town. The school happened to be in Tokyo. A court ruled that the local school district had to foot the bill. In another case, the tab for a special education student was $200,000 per year. The law books are filling up with these cases as local school districts desperately try to stem the hemorrhaging of their budgets. But the school districts almost always lose. A right is a right.

"The New York City Board of Education now spends 25 percent of its total budget on special education, covering about 10 percent of the students. It is a highly sophisticated program, but many parents demand more. One grandmother of a severely retarded girl from Brooklyn was not satisfied with any of the programs and couldn't be convinced, even by the head of special education for New York City. New York City now sends her granddaughter to a special school in Boston. 'She wanted the very best,' said the legal aid lawyer who represented her. 'It will be great for seven years,' says the lawyer, 'and then she'll turn eighteen and be dumped back into the ghetto. It doesn't make a lot of sense.'

"...One federal judge found special education permeated with 'an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust,' accompanied by 'a decided emphasis on legal rights and entitlement at the forefront of the parents' approach.' Parents constantly override the professionals, either by demanding a special school or by denying the problem altogether.

"...The disabled lobby is waging warfare against every other citizen.

"The fight for rights becomes obsessive, like a religious conviction."
[pp. 146-150]

If you wonder why your local school system seems intent on doing as little as possible for your gifted child, consider that it might be shelling out big bucks in tax money to attempt to "educate" retarded children at their parents' insistence—to teach them how to roll over, drool, etc. Howard's comments explain a lot. The New York state case in this post we are commenting on is just more of the same.

Discovering these comments just affirms my belief that the liability of school systems for special education students should be capped by law to the average cost per pupil for that district. If the typical student costs the district $15,000 per year to educate, then the district should have to pay only $15,000 toward tuition for a special school if parents are trying to push the issue—certainly not the full $200,000 as in the example in the book. This will work against gifted students whose parents want to use the same logic, but as I mentioned in my previous post, no public school system is paying for full private school tuition for a gifted child. None would dare.

Such court decisions do not benefit the gifted at all, and it's hard to see how on earth they benefit society at large. Celebrating this particular decision is, therefore, horribly misguided. The only beneficiaries are the parents of the special education student—not even the student him/herself in most cases. Making the parents feel good about their efforts to teach the uneducable is far too costly for the rest of us. We must cap that cost.