By Jessica Nguyen, Esq. of McAndrews Law Offices, P.C.
Some parents with a child with special needs may find that a typical public school is not able, or willing, to provide appropriate services and supports to ensure that the child makes meaningful educational progress. These parents often turn towards alternative educational placements, such as private schools, cyber schools, or homeschooling to serve their child. There are generally two ways in which a child with special needs can be placed at a private school: school districts offer and pay for a private school as an Individualized Education Program (IEP) placement, or parents independently place their child at a private school.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), parents who unilaterally place their child at a private school are permitted to seek private school tuition reimbursement from school districts. Typically, parents seeking reimbursement for private school tuition must notify their school district prior to removing their child from the district of their intent to enroll the child in a private school and request that the school district fund the placement.
If the school district does not agree to fund a private school placement, and the parents privately place the child and seek tuition reimbursement, parents may request a special education due process hearing to address the issue. Pursuant to two Supreme Court decisions, Burlington School Committee v. Department of Education, 471 U.S. 359 (1985) and Florence County School District Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1993), parents may be entitled to tuition reimbursement only if they can prove the following at the due process hearing:
- The latest educational program offered by the school district did not offer the child a free appropriate public education (FAPE);
- The private school selected by the parents is appropriate to meet the child’s needs; and
- Providing tuition reimbursement is equitable or fair or whether there were any actions by parents or the school district that would decrease or increase an award of tuition.
The Hearing Officer decides whether the school district has offered FAPE. In order to satisfy the first prong of the Burlington-Carter test, school districts must have conducted regular, comprehensive educational evaluations of the child and proposed an appropriate IEP to meet the child’s specialized educational needs, which must be addressed through specifically tailored goals, related services, and specially designed instruction.
Only if the Hearing Officer decides the school district failed to offer FAPE does he or she then decide whether the private school placement is appropriate for the child. An alternative placement is considered appropriate if it “provides significant learning” and “confers a meaningful benefit.” The private school need not be perfect to satisfy IDEA.
Parents of children with special needs should proceed very cautiously when deciding to seek private school placement and/or tuition reimbursement. If you have a child with a disability and are seeking District support for a private school or you have questions about your child’s rights, please see our website, www.mcandrewslaw.com, for more information, or call our office for a free consultation.