Supreme Court Ruling Hailed as Victory for Special Education

New York City has felt the impact of that growth. The Education Department says it already pays the tuition for 7,000 students who are classified as special needs. Of those, about 148,000 are educated in what is called Collaborate Team-Teaching in regular classroom settings.

The requests for tuition reimbursement have doubled in the last five years, the city says. The city's education board says the average reimbursement is $27,000 for a single pupil, but can go as high as $230,000 — the current amount for one autistic student placed in a year-round facility.

The financial burden on the public schools systems is huge, but not their only concern, say education officials.

"The point is we could be using that money for special-needs services in our schools for our students," said one Education Department spokesman. "It's not only money, but the time associated [with legal challenges.] The teacher has to leave the classroom to make the case, and lawyers are involved."

The spokesman said some wealthy parents like Freston, who have no intention of sending their child to public school, can muster up the legal fees to sue the city for reimbursement.

"It comes down to who can afford it," she said. "Not all parents can afford the process."

'Wrong' to Get System to Pay

One affluent New York City mother turned down private-school offers to send her 5-year-old to the public schools this fall. Her son had been diagnosed with mild Asperger's Syndrome and is now thriving in a 12-child kindergarten class in the city's model Nest program for children with autism.

"We wanted our son to be in class with typically developing peers," rather than in a private special-needs school, she said. "It's a big decision to choose public over private school."

But the stay-at-home mother, who did not want her name used so as not to stigmatize her son, does not rule out eventually sending her son to private school.

"We can afford private education, but we feel it would be wrong to get the public system to pay for it," she said.

As the wife of a husband working in private equity, she knows many parents who would eagerly use their financial resources to take advantage of the reimbursement system.

"I'm sure there are neurologists who are very happy to give a child a diagnosis," she said. "There's a quiet industry out there already. Parents who are at all savvy go to one of the lawyers who specialize in taking on the board of education on behalf of their children. Private schools give out a list of lawyers. This sort of thing goes on all the time."

But special-education experts say it is exactly this tact that will hit public schools hard financially and eventually force them to do a better job of educating their special-needs students.

"It's a positive ruling for parents and, ultimately, in the big picture, for the school district," said Giuliani. "They might not feel this right now, but it's a win for all."

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