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Expert Q&A

Can I get the school system to pay for a private school that specializes in learning disabilities?

Dear Mr. Cohen - If my child is disagnosed with an IEP and I want to send him to a specific private school that specialzlies in learning disabilities, is there any federal or state funding that I could apply for? We live in New York State. My research has not been successful thus far!


Tom’s Mom

Dear Tom’s Mom,

Under the IDEA, a school district is required to provide a continuum of program options for children with disabilities, ranging from services for the child to support them within the regular classroom up to and including placement in approved special education residential treatment centers. Included within the continuum of options are private schools that are especially credentialed by the states to provide services to children with disabilities in specified or approved areas. While parents may prefer for a child to receive his or her education in a specialized, private school or may feel that a particular school provides superior services to that of the public school, there is no entitlement to private school education simply based on parental preference. The only exception to this general rule is in those states, such as Florida, which have a voucher system to pay for private school services for children who are eligible for special education.

When the IEP team, with the participation of the parent, determines that the public school system is unable to meet the child’s needs and can not provide the child a free appropriate public education in a less restrictive environment, the IEP team may consider placing the child at an approved private special education school. Where the IEP team decides that this is necessary, tuition and transportation expense for the private school must be paid for by the school system. Generally, school districts are reimbursed some of the expense for these private school placements. If the school concludes that the child does not require placement in a specialized private school, because the public school is able to meet the child’s needs, the parent has the right to request a special education due process hearing for the purpose of challenging that determination. However, in order to prevail in such a due process hearing, the parent would need to show that the school system is unable to provide the child with a free appropriate public education, that the private program is the least restrictive environment for the child, and that the private school is able to provide the child with an appropriate education. One wrinkle with respect to these rules involves situations where the parent makes “unilateral” placement in a private school.

If the parent provides the school with written notice at least 10 business days prior to enrolling the student in the private school, advises the public school of the intention to enroll in the private school at an IEP meeting proceeding the enrollment or can demonstrate that there is a genuine emergency requiring immediate placement in a private school, the parent may pursue reimbursement from the public school even after having made the unilateral placement. However, where the parents make such unilateral placement, they do so at their own financial risk, as there is no assurance that the hearing officer or court will ultimately agree that the school district was not providing an appropriate education and that the placement in the private school was appropriate.

In addition to the funding available through the special education system, states typically have funding available through their Department of Human Services and, for children who are wards of the state or adopted, through the Child Welfare Department. Rules with respect to eligibility for these funding streams vary from state to state and by disability. It would be necessary to research funding available through the Human Services Department or the Child Welfare Agency in order to determine whether funding would be available for these types of placements. Typically, funding would not be available for children with learning disabilities, as the funding through Human Services or Child Welfare generally is available only for children with severe to profound disabilities.

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