Monday, September 19, 2011

Funding Private Special Education

Children who are receiving special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are entitled by law to receive an appropriate education at public expense. This right is often referred to as "FAPE" -- Free, Appropriate, Public, Education. But what is a parent to do when the public school which their child attends can't or won't provide an appropriate education?

Sometimes, a child has complex learning or other issues which make it difficult for a public school to put together an appropriate program. Some schools claim to be providing an appropriate education but are not doing so, so that the student is failing to make progress in his current setting. There are many excellent public school programs for children with learning or other difficulties, but there are also many programs that don't do a good job serving the children for whom they were designed.

Whatever the reason, parents may seek to remove their child from the public school program and place her in a private school that they believe can provide a better education for their child. Of course, the practicality of this depends on the private options available. In some areas of the country, such as here in New York City, there are numerous private alternatives to the public school system. In other regions, private schools that can work with students with learning differences simply don't exist.

For parents who are seeking to have their child educated in a private school at public expense, there are some basic concepts that need to be understood. The first is that public schools can only place children in schools that have been approved by their state to enroll children with specific categories of "disability." This is one of the ways in which the use of labels to provide services to children comes into play. So, for example, if your child is labeled "other health impaired," a category often used for children with significant attention difficulties, he may not be eligible to attend a private special education school that is only for students with "learning disabilities," even though he also has learning problems. Parents may need to have their child's IEP team consider whether he can be re-classified to make him eligible for a particular school.

Another consideration is whether a school appears on the state "approved" list. Here in New York, as in other states, there are lists of private programs that meet criteria for curriculum, calendar, and other factors. Many excellent private schools choose not to limit themselves to state curriculum or to give state tests, for example, and therefore do not seek to be placed on this "approved" list. Also, schools on the list agree to charge fees set by the state at a rate which is lower than the tuition they would otherwise charge. Parents whose public school district agrees to place their child at an "approved" private school do not pay tuition; the cost of this private education is paid by the public school and the state.

Public schools can recommend a private school for a student who needs one, but only if the school is on the "approved" list. If a school is not on the list, parents will need to bring their case before a State Hearing Officer who will order the school district to reimburse parents for private school tuition only if:
  • The public school failed to provide an appropriate educational program for the student; and
  • The private school is an appropriate setting for this student; and
  • The parents cooperated with the public school in looking at alternatives and generally exercised good faith during the process
Since private special education schools can be very expensive, it can be a real burden on parents to have to front the tuition costs and wait for reimbursement a year or more later. Because the rules for bringing a case to a hearing are complicated we generally suggest that parents work with an attorney with experience in handling these kinds of cases.

In very rare instances, some private schools will accept a student without payment up front and await payment from the public school district. This kind of arrangement is called "Connors funding" after a federal court case in New York that noted, "...when a parent does not have the financial means to front the cost of a non-approved private school...without external support, the child would have no chance at what has already been determined to be his or her opportunity to receive an appropriate education..."

Whatever parents decide to do, they need to be armed with information and to consider their options.

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