Which Special Needs Kids Are Getting Served at Private or Public Schools and at What Cost?

11/22/2010 07:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Lisa Belzberg Founder and Chair Emerita, PENCIL (Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning)

One of my daughters is intelligent, creative, hard-working and highly dyslexic. She attends a private school where class size is often as small as 8 children. My child is truly fortunate because the school has the staff and resources to help her overcome her learning challenges and help her to reach her full potential and work toward her dreams. One thing the administration and parents at this wonderful school bemoan, though, is that our kids won't have nearly enough, diversity among their classmates.

Increasingly, it is the children of affluent parents who can afford to take advantage of non-public special education school options. And while public schools struggle mightily to improve their special-ed programs, private schools, with better student-teacher ratios, technology and greater access to innovation, generally remain the better option to help a child with learning challenges get the help they need. (Not surprising enrollment in special education programs continues to rise dramatically -- nationally there has been a 12.5 percent jump in the last five years.)

How to solve the problem? You guessed it, more money. How to find that money? Well, in New York City, start with many families of learning challenged kids who aren't using the public school system, but are -- totally within their legal rights -- asking the public school system to pay the cost of their child's private education. In 1997, Tom Freston, then the CEO of MTV, began a legal battle with the New York City Board of Education. His then 8 year-old son, a student at the Stephen Gaynor School, a specialized school on Manhattan's Upper West Side, was found to have a moderate learning disability. The city offered the boy a spot at PS 77, Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education, which has classes for students with that level of disability. Not satisfied with the services provided by PS 77 Mr. Freston instead kept his son at Stephen Gaynor and sued the city for an administrative hearing to have the annual tuition of $21,819 re-paid. (Tuition has since almost doubled at many of these small schools!)

Freston, and his legal team, determined they were within their rights to sue based on an amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law states that if a public school district has failed to provide a "free and appropriate" education to a child with special needs, then the parents may unilaterally remove their child from the school and seek full reimbursement at the public's expense for special education at a private school. Although Freston's son had never been enrolled in a NYC public school, Mr. Freston, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court, determined that the reimbursement was owed.

In principle, the decision is a good one -- parents dissatisfied with the special-ed options at public schools can get a private school education for their children at no cost. But, there is a cost to the public school system. New York City last year spent $1.2 billon on tuition for special need students at private schools. (Total IDEA funding for fiscal year 2010 will be $12.32 billion).

While there is no cap on the amount of IDEA money a district can provide, public school funds are far from inexhaustible. IDEA dollars come out of districts coffers, and large payments for private school - and the increased litigation costs being spent to fight some of the requests -- mean that public systems have less to spend creating programs and providing services in their own schools.

To be very clear, in no way am I trying to demonize the IDEA legislation. It exists for good reason. Historically, our nation's track record in Special Education is appalling and it was a need to protect the rights and improve prospects for students with disabilities that spurred the law's passage in the first place. Because of it, thousands of kids across the country receive services that their public school districts aren't able to provide. In practice, however, the law raises some tough questions. Should wealthy people be entitled to ask for IDEA dollars at all? It would of course be discriminatory to include a means test such as family income in distributing the money; this is a piece of civil rights legislation after all. But, if you believe that people of means have a moral obligation to pay for their child's private education, even if a law on the books would let them seek out the money from the public school system - this leaves one in a bit of a quandary.

Is there an answer that will help benefit both the diverse special education population and the public school system?

Tom Freston donated his IDEA money to PS 84 to help finance tutoring for lagging first graders. What if wealthy families who receive IDEA funding donated some or all of that money back to their private school with the stipulation that it be used to pay the tuition of a student with special needs from a low-income family, ostensibly allowing the public schools to finance the private education of two kids for the price of one? What if these families pooled their money together to create a fund that could be used to provide professional development to public school teachers geared towards instructing students with disabilities?

We have a moral imperative to do both what is best for our public schools and an obligation to provide excellent services for all students with learning disabilities and learning differences.