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Dual Enrollment for Special Education

How to enroll your child in both private school and public school for special education services

Parents of children with special needs often send their kids to mainstream private or parochial schools, even though not all such schools offer an appropriate level of special education and related services. As parents scramble to fill in the gaps, many wonder whether dual enrollment is the answer.

Dual enrollment occurs when a child with special needs attends a private school but simultaneously registers in the public school system in order to receive special education services. So is dual enrollment the answer? It depends.

Make sure your child is actually dual-enrolled.

No matter where you live, a child who attends private school is not eligible for special education services from her local public school unless: 1) The district finds her eligible through an appropriate evaluation; and 2) she is actually registered with the district.

Registration is not automatic. You need to specifically register your child with the district, taking pains to explain that registration is for the sole purpose of obtaining special education services. Be prepared for confusion: Dual enrollment is an easily misconstrued subject, so be patient and make sure you’re given the correct registration forms.

Dual enrollment gray area (you're not crazy; the system is)

Unlike the laws that protect public school–enrolled students with special needs, the laws that pertain to private school students are extremely weak. These laws merely state that public school districts must give students who attend private schools “a genuine opportunity for equitable participation” in their special education programs.

Unfortunately, the laws give individual districts tremendous discretion over what services to provide and where, when and how they provide them. So even if you live in a district that offers a generous amount of special education services to students who attend private schools, it might provide them only in a certain building at a certain time on a certain day — making it prohibitive for you to access these services.

Don't depend on special-ed dual enrollment

Do not depend on dual enrollment to consistently provide your child with special education services. Districts can (and do) change or eliminate services from year to year. If you are not prepared, you could find yourself without access to a much-needed service and with nowhere to turn. It’s also important to note that dually enrolled students are not entitled to district IEPs (individualized education plans).

When public school students are denied access to necessary special education services, they have powerful legal recourse they can exercise to hold districts accountable. Dual-enrolled students, however, do not. For this reason, it is crucial for you to have a backup plan for any services your child receives through dual enrollment. It’s also smart to confirm over the summer if the district is changing the services your child is slated to receive come September, so you can plan accordingly.

Given that dual enrollment is at best a shaky solution, find out what services your child would be eligible for if he were to solely attend public school. To do this, you can either have your child evaluated independently at your own expense or obtain a free evaluation from your school district. To do the latter,you’ll have to “register” your child for the limited purpose of getting evaluated. The district must then complete its evaluation within 60 days from registration in Pennsylvania and within 45 days in Delaware and New Jersey.

If the evaluation reveals that your child is eligible for an IEP, the district must offer her a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) — which means an education, at no cost to you, that enables her to make meaningful progress in school commensurate with her abilities. If the district can meet your child’s individual needs within its public schools, you must weigh that option against re-enrolling her in private school. If the district can not meet her needs at the public school level, it still might be responsible for paying for your child to attend a private school more aligned with her needs, like some of the ones listed here.

In other words, if you find yourself turning to dual enrollment because your child’s private school is unable to provide him with the special education services he needs, you might find a better solution in the public schools themselves or in a private school for which your public school district might have to foot the bill.

Josh Kershenbaum is a special education attorney at Frankel & Kershenbaum, LLC.

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