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Rights Gone Wrong - Why It’s Not Always Best To Treat Education As A Civil Right

Publication Date: 
November 02, 2011
Source: 
Slate
Author: 
Richard Thompson Ford

An article excerpted from Professor Richard Thompson Ford’s new book, Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality" is featured by Slate Magazine below.

This is the second of three articles excerpted from Richard Ford’s new book, Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality.

Tom Freston, who helped start MTV and was present at the creation of such timeless classics as Beavis and Butthead, earned a nice living as an entertainment executive. When he retired as head of Viacom in 2006, he received a $60 million severance package. So why, in the late 1990s, did he sue the city of New York to reimburse him for his son’s private-school tuition?

In 1995, after his son was diagnosed with ADHD, Freston enrolled him in the prestigious Stephen Gaynor School, which specializes in students with learning disabilities. Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, if a school district receives federal funding, it must develop “specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” If the school district fails to provide a child with an “appropriate” education, the parents are legally entitled to tuition reimbursement for private schools.

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Mark Kelman, my colleague at Stanford Law School, and Gillian Lester, now a professor at U.C.–Berkeley Law School, conducted an extensive study of learning disability claims in public schools and wrote a book about it. They visited a number of local school districts and talked to local school administrators, teachers, and parents to see how the disability rights laws worked in practice. Their conclusion: Treating the education of learning disabled children as a civil rights issue benefits rich families at the expense of the poor, and actually makes it harder to educate most students—disabled and nondisabled alike.