Friday, April 20, 2012

Support Services and Accommodations in Private Schools

An article in our most recent newsletter discussed how and when students are entitled to a publicly funded education in a private school. Even students enrolled in a private school by their parents have rights to special education services if they have an IEP under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) from the public school district. Parents seeking such an IEP need to contact the public school district in which the private school is located. These services are funded from a different source than is available to public schools, but once a student has an IEP he or she can get at least some special education services, no matter where he or she attends school.

But not all students who need supports or accommodations (such as extended time on tests) have "disabilities" as defined by the IDEA. Sometimes students have learning or other issues that do not require special education services, but still need some additional support or more time to take their examinations. In a public school these students would receive such supports or accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), the federal law that applies to individuals with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities (including learning, thinking, etc.). The problem for students in private schools is that Section 504 does not apply to private schools -- only to schools that receive federal funding (as do essentially all public schools, directly or indirectly).

So, what are the options for such students, who have real learning or other issues but who don't qualify for an IEP and can't get help from Section 504? For most of these students, the answer lies in the Americans with Disabilities Act. We don't hear much about this law for school age students, since most services and accommodations are provided by the IDEA or Section 504 for this age group. However, it most definitely applies to everyone, regardless of age, and requires that all aspects of a student's education be made accessible so long as the accommodations needed to do this are not an undue burden on the school. What does accessible mean here? It means that students who need extra time to complete their exams, or who need specialized software (such as voice-to-text or text-to-voice), or who need a scribe, or audiobooks,  should be provided with these items. It does not, however, mean that students are entitled to the kinds of services that even Section 504 provides for students in public schools. There is a discussion of the ADA and Section 504 on the website of the U.S. Department of Education.

One important consideration for students in religious schools is that all religious institutions, including religious schools, are exempt from the ADA. Since Section 504 does not apply to these schools either, students who do not have an IEP may not be entitled to accommodations unless the school elects to make them available.

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