According to published reports, the family sought special-education evaluations from the New York City Department of Education in 1997 and 1998. Each time the public schools came up with an individualized education plan, the family rejected it as inadequate and sued for an administrative hearing.
Both times the city settled and agreed to pay the tuition.
In 1999, after another evaluation, the city recommended that Gilbert be placed in a fourth-grade special-education class with 15 students and one teacher. Again, the family asked for a hearing. The Frestons won the first two legal rounds and a hearing before an appeals board, arguing the public school's plan was inadequate.
The city's Education Department took the case to the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where a judge ruled the child could only receive reimbursement if the parents had first tried placing him in public schools. An appeals court later reversed that decision.
Under a landmark 1975 special-education law, school systems must provide a "free appropriate" public education to disabled students.
Before 1975, special-needs students were separated out in poorly equipped classrooms and Congress deemed that children should be placed in the "least restrictive environment" among their nondisabled peers.
The intent of the law was to move toward what was then called "mainstreaming," or educating disabled children in regular classrooms with specialized team-teacher support to meet their needs.
Sending students to private schools that cater to special-needs children "goes against the principle of inclusion," according to George Giuliani, the director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers. He is not related to the GOP presidential hopeful and former New York City mayor. He said the court ruling will have a "huge impact" on school districts nationally.
"If you don't have programs, it's going to cost you a lot more money, so have it early on or you'll end up paying for it," he said.
"If I have a special-needs child, I expect my tax dollars to pay for him, not to be pushed aside," said Giuliani.
But Scott Gaynor, head of school where Gilbert attended until the age of 11, argues that the act "clearly provides for free and appropriate education for all children, regardless of where they go to school."
"If the academic needs of the child are not being met, who cares who his peers are, if he doesn't feel good about himself," said Gaynor.
His school serves children ages 5 to 14 with a "wide umbrella" of learning disabilities in class sizes between nine and 11 students. The typical New York City public school class has 25 or more students.
"It certainly benefits the families or our school," said Gaynor. About half of the families there receive tuition reimbursement.
Freston had argued that he had chosen the Gaynor School because initially the public schools could not provide a program to meet his son's unique needs. By the time the city produced a plan, it was too late.
"All research shows that the earlier you treat a disability, the earlier you can give services and the greater the probability of remediating," said Giuliani.
The number of special-education students in the United States has doubled — from about 3 million when the 1975 act was penned to 6 million today, representing about 9 percent of the general student population, according to the teachers organization.