School Choice for the Legally Savvy Parent

It appears that at least one group of students in California get a school choice program:  Those with irritating but legally savvy parents willing to exploit special education programs  (Hat tip to Overlawyered)

In Sonoma County, for example, a family recently enrolled its child in an
out-of-state boarding school, then billed its district not only for tuition,
but airfare, car rental, hotel, cell phone calls, meals, tailoring, new
clothes, an iBook computer, stamps, tolls, gas and 13 future round-trip visits.
Total tab: $67,949.

How?  By having their child declared a special ed student and then shamelessly exploiting the legal process to force such settlements

Since 1993, the number of students in public special ed programs rose 27
percent, to 681,969 from 539,073. But special ed students placed in private
schools at public expense rose nearly five times faster  --  128 percent, to
15,926 from 6,994....

Gross described the law's
myriad requirements as "150 points of potential mistakes" for school districts.

Missing even one step can cause a district to lose its case if a
hearing officer finds that a student's education suffered as a result. 

"There isn't an attorney who can't find us making a mistake on one of
those things," Gross said.

So who is qualifying as "learning disabled"?   I bet you aren't thinking of this boy, who got special education funding from the state to go to a private boarding school:

"He was not offered the classes that I thought he needed," the mother
said. "If my son didn't get what he needed, my fear was that he would drop out
of school.'' 

She acknowledged he had never been a discipline problem. The hearing
records describe him as a "young adult who is likable, friendly, energetic and
highly motivated. He is physically active, plays lacrosse and soccer, and
enjoys wakeboarding and snowboarding."

"He's a model child," she said. "However, his frustration and anxiety were
so high that I could see that this is the type of person who, out of
frustration, turns to drugs or something that he shouldn't be doing."

And, uh, what learning disability does this describe, except perhaps the general category of "teenage boy?"  This is a clear case of the most irritating parents with the most aggressive lawyers getting over on the rest of us.  Read it all.  My guess is that most everyone will be irritated, perhaps most of all those with a child with a true learning disability that really needs special help.  And make sure not to miss the state funded "dolphin therapy".  (Update:  Last year we spent a fortune for our kids to swim with the dolphins in Hawaii.  Do you think I can charge that back to my local school district?)


  1. Ryan Cupples:

    The sad part is, that with today's parents being so overprotective and coddling of their children (read: parents attending job interviews!), that she is more than likely 100% serious. I can understand a parent who is opportunistic and an asshole, but if she arrived at the conclusion that her child needed $68,000 worth of support for one year of school in a non-malicious way, think of how many other parents could arrive at a similar conclusion.

  2. Brad Warbiany:

    It's funny how easy it is to demand everything under the sun when you know you can get the omnipresent "someone else" to pay for it...

  3. Anonymous Coward:

    When parents cannot get education vouchers from the government that taxes them, they are justified to work through the loopholes. I am sorry they got close to $70,000 of our tax dollars. But the first $10,000 (average expenditure per student) are quite justified.

  4. wolfman:

    The truely sad part of this is that transfers frequently take place to the more affluent members of the community. In my community, a way above middle class (ave home is 650,000), I watch as they game the system for needs that they could well afford.

    It is not that I object to people using the system to maximize their gain - that is the basis of our market economy.

    I objct to a system that has absolutely no means testing to prevent abuse.

  5. Deoxy:

    "I am sorry they got close to $70,000 of our tax dollars. But the first $10,000 (average expenditure per student) are quite justified."

    Actually, the average expenditure per student is $25,000.

    Otherwise, I essentially agree with you.

    And wolfman is right on, too.

  6. Jim Thornton:

    We did not want to fight the system with our son who was diagnosed with dyslexia in the first grade. We put him in a special school through 8th grade at our expense of $35,000 per year and felt the education was well worth the expense. We then searched all over the country for a high school that could help our son overcome or compensate for his disability, none of the schools in our area felt as right as the Forman School in Litchfield, Connecticut. My son had a wonderful experience, great special education training, individualized for his learning differences, after four wonderful years he was accepted into James Madison University. When my son was in eighth grade I never thought that college was an option. We never taxed the local school district but we did deduct the tuition on our 2003 tax return. We should have asked for a private ruling from the IRS. In a letter ruling 200521003, the IRS held that tuition paid to a school program to help dyslexic children deal with their condition was an IRC section 213(a)deductable medical expense. The taxpayer enrolled the children in a school that provided them with special education designed to enable them to cope. The IRS told that family that it was ok to deduct the tuition as a medical expense. We also took the medical deduction based on the tax law and right now the IRS has denied our medical deduction. I now have to spend additional moneys on top of the $160,000-$180,000 I spent over the last four years to fight the IRS because I know that my son's tuition is deductable, paying the tuition was worth it because my son is functioning at a high level because of the superior way in which he was taught to utilize his strengths to work around his disability. Last year I attended a local civic association meeting in my town, at that meeting the new school board president was making a presentation. During the question and answer session, I asked how many families were receiving partial or full tuition at private schools outside of the township that we lived in that was being paid for by the township. She answered that 345 families were receiving full or partial assistance and in most of the families there was some type of special education requirement that the parent's claimed the local school district was unable to meet. At this point in time, I wish that I was one of the savvy parents who hired an attorney to fight for the right to have the tuition paid for at the Forman School, instead I have to hire an attorney anyway because some examiner at the IRS is making me jump through all kinds of hoops in my effort to convince them that the tuition was a medical expense. So to all who read this comment, attempt to get the IRS to give you a private letter ruling before you enroll your special needs child in a school that specializes in learning differences or even better have your attorney write a pleasant letter to your local school board requesting that they pay for your special education needs. As I look back now, I wish I had been savvy enough to be Over Lawyered. Good luck.
    Jim Thornton