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Private Special Education and Reimbursement FAQ

Parents with children who have special needs can have a hard time getting their child the necessary services. Federal law provides that public schools should offer special needs children the appropriate services, but in practice it can be extremely difficult to actually get your child these services and parents often find that the services the school provides are inadequate.

Does my child's public school have to offer special education for my child with a learning disability?

Yes. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to children and youth with disabilities. The general rule is that a school must provide a disabled student with free appropriate public education (FAPE), or if they do not provide FAPE, then parents can ask for reimbursement for tuition for an institution where special education services could be provided.

Does that mean that I can send my child to a private school and expect to be reimbursed for my child's private special education?

Not necessarily. In the 1980s, the Supreme Court decided in the Rowley case that special needs children are entitled only to "appropriate" educational services and not the best services available (often private special education). If your public school can provide such services, deemed "appropriate", then you would not be able to receive reimbursement if you chose to send your child to a private school.

What happens if the school and I disagree on whether they are providing "appropriate" services?

IDEA sets up a "due process" hearing, where parents can resolve any disputes they have with the school district. A due process hearing is a court-like review governed by administrative laws. If parents feel that the school district is not providing "appropriate" services to their special needs child, then parents can seek reimbursement if they can prove that the school district:

  • Did not accept their referral requesting an evaluation for their child; and/or
  • Failed to provide FAPE

Because not evaluating the child for special needs in the first place is the same as denying the child services, the due process hearing allows you to prove either case.

Are there any recent developments in this area that I should know about?

Yes. The law up until 2009 was fairly straightforward. Parents were eligible to seek tuition reimbursement for their child's private special education only if:

  • Parents allowed schools the opportunity to provide FAPE to the child in a public school and
  • The schools failed to provide appropriate services

However, in 2009, the Supreme Court in the Forest case held that school districts that do not provide FAPE to students with disabilities may have to provide private school tuition reimbursement under certain conditions, even if the student had not been served in public schools at all. Note that this does not establish the right to actually be reimbursed, but rather gives parents the right to seek reimbursement even if their child was not enrolled in the public school system.

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