Supreme Irony: Frost Attacks Continue as Ex-Viacom Chief Wins Tuition Case
While Republican politicians, conservative commentators and the right-wing blogosphere continued their jihad against the private school scholarship of 12 year old S-CHIP beneficiary Graeme Frost, the Supreme Court Wednesday quietly handed the son of multimillionaire former Viacom CEO Tom Freston private school tuition courtesy of New York taxpayers.
Frost, as you'll recall, is the Maryland child who delivered the Democratic response on September 29th to President Bush's veto of the bill expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP). Frost, whose working class parents' dual incomes do not top Maryland's $55,220 ceiling for eligibility, received S-CHIP benefits to pay for the treatment of severe brain injuries he suffered in a car crash.
Furious conservatives, including a top aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Michelle Malkin, immediately sought to destroy this obvious S-CHIP success story. Claiming "this family has considerable assets," Malkin and others focused their ire on the Frost children's private school attendance as a symbol of their relative wealth and lack of deservedness for supposedly dining at the public trough. Of course, that Graeme's education is funded by a $15,000 scholarship and his sister's attendance at another school by a $23,000 grant from the state does not appear in the right wing smear of the Frost family.
But while all eyes in the blogosphere Wednesday were focused on the education of Graeme Frost, the Supreme Court in essence decided that New York taxpayers should fund the education of one of the children of one of America's richest men. The Court refused to hear New York City's appeal against former Viacom head Tom Freston, who had demanded the city fund his son's special education program at the tony Stephen Gaynor School in Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Under a 1997 amendment to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, parents are entitled to private school tuition for children in special education where a public school district has failed to provide a "free and appropriate" education to a child with special needs. When New York City offered Freston's 8 year-old son a program at its Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education, Freston demurred. Without trying the city's program, he instead sent his child to the elite Gaynor school and demanded New York City pick up the tab. The law, Freston claimed, does not require a "try-out" in the public schools.
While a trial court agreed with New York, the United States Court of Appeals for Second Circuit reversed the ruling and ruled in favor of Freston. And with Justice Anthony Kennedy recusing himself, the Justices deadlocked 4-4, in effect affirming the Appeals Court decision.
By not taking the case, the Supreme Court set no precedent in its handling of Board of Education of the City of New York v. Tom F. For New York, already facing a tripling in claims to 3,675 students costing $57 million a year, the immediate impact of future cases could be staggering. But the impact was to make the taxpayers of New York pay the bill for the private schooling of one of America's very wealthiest.
Just how wealthy is Tom Freston? As Bloomberg reported last year, Freston snared an $84.8 million severance package when he was sacked as Viacom chief executive after less than one year on the job. Explaining the gargantuan golden parachute, renowned executive recruiter John Challenger reasoned:
"Because of his connections in the industry, they may very well have said, 'We don't want him mad at us.' 80 million goes a long way to ensure your loyalty and to make sure you stay on message."
Unfortunately, Freston seems to have saved his anger for the New York City school district. While Freston claims he donated the reimbursements to a New York public school and was bringing the case on behalf of parents who could not afford the expenses, some of the dollars apparently made their way into the 2008 election. Chris Dodd and Barack Obama each received $2,300 contributions from Freston in March 2007.
But for the Michelle Malkins and Mitch McConnells of the world, Tom Freston is one Democrat whose taxpayer support appears to be just fine. They'd prefer to pick on someone their own size: a 12 year old boy.
UPDATE: It is worth noting the interesting bedfellows in this case. Freston was supported not only by disability groups such as the International Dyslexia Association, Autism Speaks, and the National Disability Rights Network, but by the Bush administration no doubt interested in support of a larger voucher agenda. Meanwhile, the Council of the Great City Schools, the National School Boards Association, the American Association of School Administrators, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities are among the groups supporting New York's school board. Freston's son is now 17 and has long since rejoined mainstream classes.