When we began this blog back in the summer of 2009, we wrote a number of posts about the basics of special education law and how families could navigate the laws that would provide services and support for their children. We addressed all sorts of topics -- How to get your district to pay for an evaluation, How federal disability laws differ from each other , What are Related Services? and many others.
Parents sometimes have questions about these or other subjects related to special education and we often find that the best way to answer their query is to share our blog(s) on the subject. But, as you might imagine, our readership has grown and changed over the past 12 years and parents' questions have made us realize that it might be time to address some old and new topics that are fundamental to understanding students' rights in special education.
One question that has cropped up recently is whether a Committee on Special Education (CSE), the team that creates the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a student with disabilities under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) can place a student in a non-approved school and order payment for the tuition at such school. Parents have heard about getting their tuition paid at a private school and some assumed that this was how the process worked. Nope, it's much more complex than that. Let's look at the process, understanding that it can differ a bit from state to state.
First, parents can always place their child in a private school, whether a specialized school or one that offers a general curriculum and no significant supports. This discussion is about whether payment for a private school will be made by the public district.
The first step in that process is for a school district to be unwilling or unable to offer a child who is classified under the IDEA an appropriate IEP -- school setting, services, accommodations. This can be in the child's regular school or a non-public school that is "approved" by the state (a subject for another discussion). But here we are assuming that the parents do not find the proposed setting appropriate.
The CSE, even if it finds that the school that the parents want is an excellent setting, does not have the authority to pay tuition at such school. The parents have to give the district notice that they are unilaterally placing their child in the private school, and then file for a hearing before a state hearing officer, who will look at several criteria, including whether the IEP was really not appropriate and whether the placement the parents have selected is, indeed, an appropriate setting. At a minimum, the parent's choice must offer the special education services the child needs (so not just any private school will do).
The process takes months to complete and in almost all cases requires the parents to pay the tuition to the school and then get reimbursed if they are successful at a hearing. And the process must be repeated for each school year.
Many parents are successful and have worked out a system so that their child can attend a specialized private school offering special educational services. But it is not a simple process and success is not guaranteed. We recommend working with a special education attorney to make sure all the 'i's' are dotted and the 't's' are crossed.