Is Private School the Answer?

For kids with special needs, receiving tuition for an independent school depends on whether their public district provides appropriate education.

As the saying goes, one size does not fit all. For some kids with disabilities, the typical public school model simply does not work.

It might be that class sizes are too large. There may be too many transitions. The child may need more, or less, structure. Or, the child’s disability may be too intense to reasonably manage in the mainstream, even with supports. For these kids, private schools may provide the answer.

Private school placements generally happen in two ways: Parents place their child in private school, or the public school offers a private school as the IEP placement. In the former situation, parents have the right under IDEA to sue their school district for tuition reimbursement. In the latter event, the public school usually recommends placement at an Approved Private School (APS), an independent school that is state-approved for tuition reimbursement.

Evaluating a School's Plan

When evaluating your school’s program for your child, here are questions to consider.

Has the school district assessed all of your child’s special needs, including
academic, social and emotional, behavioral, functional, speech and language, communication, occupational therapy and physical therapy?

• Does the school district’s evaluation match what you know about your child’s needs and diagnosis?

• Does the IEP explain the actual levels where your child is currently functioning, as opposed to merely reciting grades and test scores?

• Does the IEP offer sufficient related services, such as counseling, social skills training, physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech and language?

• Does the IEP include both academic and functional goals that are measurable?

• Are the expected levels of achievement too low or too high?

• Does the IEP contain a Positive Behavior Plan based on a Functional Behavioral Assessment?

For students 14 and older, does the IEP consider academic, community, related services, independent living and employment-related goals?

• Does the IEP offer Extended School Year services?

Should You Agree to an APS Placement?

APSs are private special education schools that are licensed and approved for tuition reimbursement by the state. APSs are bound by special education laws and the cost of their tuition is shared between the state and the school district, making them attractive out-of-district placements to school districts.

However, not all APSs are created equal, so parents should research and visit any private school before agreeing to placement. Since many of these schools admit only students with certain disabilities, they may not be optimal for kids who need exposure to nondisabled peers. Some APSs focus more on functional skills and less on academics. Some APS student populations may have serious behavioral issues.

On the other hand, class sizes tend to be smaller, with a lower student/teacher ratio. Teachers must be certificated under IDEA and state standards. Some APSs offer partial hospitalization programs during the school day, so their students receive instruction as well as mental health and substance abuse supports. Some APSs offer residential as well as day placement.

Tuition Reimbursement

If you choose a different private school than the school district selects, are you entitled to tuition reimbursement? Maybe, but don’t jump the gun. Before you reject a placement your school district offers — whether in or out of district — talk to your special education department about your concerns.

With each year, many school districts are getting better at meeting the needs of kids with disabilities, and many public schools have more resources than most private schools. Give your school district a chance to work with you to find a mutually agreeable program and placement. Remember that your child is entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), and what is appropriate for your child is not always what is the very best for your child.

If, however, communication does not resolve your concerns, you may be entitled to tuition reimbursement. But you remove your child from public school at your own risk. Tuition reimbursement is available only if 1) the school district’s IEP does not offer FAPE, and 2) the private school is appropriate to meet the child’s needs.

State Approved Schools

Click on a state for list of Approved Private Schools.


New Jersey


Was FAPE Offered?

Just as there is no IEP cookie cutter, there is no bright line definition of free appropriate public education. FAPE is a slippery and subjective concept. The key is that it must be individualized and offer the child the opportunity to make meaningful (but not necessarily optimal) educational progress.

To that end, school districts must conduct regular educational evaluations in all areas of your child’s particular disabilities and identify your child’s unique needs. These needs must be addressed in your child’s IEP through specifically tailored goals, related services and specially designed instruction.

What Makes a Private School Appropriate?

Not every private school is equipped to meet every disabled child’s needs. While some market themselves as specializing in certain disabilities, private schools are not required to follow the IDEA.

This means that students are not guaranteed the same educational protections they would enjoy in public school. It also means private school teachers are not held to the same qualifications or training standards as public school teachers. However, tuition reimbursement may be available even if the private school does not meet IDEA standards.

Here are questions to ask when you visit a private school.

  • What percentage of staff are certified and/or licensed according to state standards?
  • What training is staff given in understanding particular disabilities, developing and implementing IEPs, behavior techniques and progress reporting?
  • Which special needs does the school serve?
  • Does the school offer a full curriculum of core academic and special subjects?
  • How large are the classes and what is the student/teacher ratio?
  • Does the school provide behavior support?
  • Does the school offer counseling and tutoring services?
  • Are staff specially trained in speech and language, physical therapy, occupational therapy and other related service areas?
  • Do students have any opportunities to interact with nondisabled peers?

How Do I Get Reimbursed?

If your school district does not agree to fund a private school placement, IDEA requires parents to request a special education due process hearing. Parents can represent themselves or be represented by an attorney. The Hearing Officer decides whether the school district’s has offered FAPE, and, if not, whether the private school is appropriate for the child.

Because IDEA now contains a two-year limitations period, parents should request a due process hearing as soon as they suspect their child is being denied a FAPE. Hearing requests must be filed with your state’s board of education and also sent to your public school district.

IDEA also requires parents to notify the IEP team of their intent to privately place the child at the last IEP meeting before removal from the public school, or in writing 10 business days before removal. 

Gabrielle C. Sereni is an attorney who represents children with disabilities and their parents for the McAndrews Law Offices, Berwyn, PA,

Categories: Special Needs Parenting