Supreme Court Ruling Hailed as Victory for Special Education

In 1995, Gilbert Freston, a 5-year-old boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was enrolled at New York City's private Stephen Gaynor School where he could receive an education specially tailored to his needs.

His parents had decided the New York City Board of Education's proposal to place Gilbert in a city special education program was unsatisfactory.

Citing the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, his parents sought reimbursement for the private tuition — $21,819 a year — from the board.

The backbone of the act is the principle that parents can seek reimbursement for private schools costs if the public school is unable to provide for the specialized needs of students.

But Gilbert's father, Tom Freston, is not your average father. He is one of the founders of MTV and the recently ousted Viacom CEO, who took a buyout of $84 million in 2006. The city denied the request for reimbursement, arguing that because Gilbert was never enrolled in its school system, the Frestons had never given public education a chance.

In a legal battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, Freston won his case this week, signaling a victory for special-needs parents everywhere, but posing the stickier ethical questions about whether public dollars should pay for private education.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court affirmed an earlier ruling that even New York City's wealthiest power brokers are entitled to receive reimbursement for private tuition even if their children have never attended public school. As a divided ruling — 4-4 with Justice Anthony Kennedy recusing himself — legal experts say the decision will set no precedent, but special-education leaders say it could put the pressure on all public schools to do a better job.

The city's lawyers said they hope the Supreme Court will eventually decide the issue once and for all. "This detracts from schools' abilities to work with parents for the best possible educational outcomes for children with disabilities," said lead city counsel Leonard Koerner in a prepared statement.

Freston, who did not answer calls made by ABCNEWS.com, has said in the past that the fight was about principle, not money, and that he would donate reimbursements to a special-education support center in a public school.

"We are pleased," Gilbert's mother, Margaret Badali, told ABCNEWS.com. "That's all we're going to say."

Victory for Parents

The National Association of Special Education Teachers hailed the ruling as victory for parents of the nation's more than 6 million special-education students — 9 percent of the overall student population. The ruling comes at a time when the classification of special-needs students is at an all-time high and when more parents are seeking private school alternatives for their children. An estimated 88,000 such students are educated privately at the public expense.

Public schools say their budgets are likely to suffer and some wonder whether places like New York City, where wealthy, competitive parents will do almost anything to give their child an academic edge, the ruling will embolden parents to seek private education for their children.

This week's ruling is the culmination of a decade-long fight for the Frestons.

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