Skip to main content

Expert Q&A

Do students who attend religious schools have rights to special education services?

Dear Mr. Cohen,

My eight-year-old son attends a private Christian academy in Maryland. He has received failing grades all year. The principal of the school signs off on his report card with “try your best” or “work harder”. The teacher and I have been working together to figure out what’s going on with my son and to help him improve his grades.

I sent the principal an email approximately six weeks before the end of the school year requesting that the school test him for LD or ADD. She responded once, that she would get the ball rolling, but no action was ever taken. We never met with the school’s diagnostic personnel or the principal to discuss alternatives. I was informed that after a school receives a written request to test a child, the school has 90 days to respond, etc. Since no action was taken, what should I do now?

Thanks for your input.

Bowie, MD

Dear Tracy,

Your question addresses the entitlement to services for a child who attends a private Christian academy. As a general matter, a child who attends a private religious school is not entitled to any of the protections of the non-discrimination laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Education Act, if the school district is religiously controlled, as it appears to be in your situation.

The only exception to this would be if the school receives either specific funding from the school district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or some other form of direct funding to the school from the federal government in order to trigger the protections of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which also prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. In the absence of a federal funding stream, neither the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Section 504, nor the Americans with Disabilities Education Act apply to the private religious school.

Although a child may be in a private religious school, the child still has a right to be evaluated by the public school at no expense, in order to determine whether the child qualifies for special education. If, as a result of this evaluation, the public school determines that the child does qualify for special education, the parent may either opt to enroll the child in public school in order to obtain the special education services, or may request that the public school provide special education services while the child attends the private school.

However, if the parent elects to request services through the private school setting, rather than enrolling the child in the public school, the child is not legally entitled to receive services from the public school. Rather, the public school is entitled to determine how to use its federal special education dollars in relation to that child, or whether it will provide services to the child at all. Under the IDEA, the school district’s obligation to children voluntarily enrolled in private schools is only to provide a certain amount of money for such services in general, rather than to provide services to individual children pursuant to their individual education plans.

Back to Top