Navigating Special Education in Private School

Laws & Policies are Different:

When a family chooses a private school for a student with a disability, the laws and policies for special education are a bit different than they are in a full-time public-school placement.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates individualized programming for eligible students with disabilities that provide meaningful access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The law also mandates that public schools seek out and serve children with disabilities through a process called Child Find. In some cases, a public school chooses to place a child in a private special education school as part of the individualized programming. In this case, the entitlements of IDEA are upheld by the public school that manages the IEP.

However, when parents choose a private school placement, the school is not bound by IDEA to provide special education services. Private schools are, however, required to provide accommodations to children who qualify for them under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Private schools are usually willing to provide certain modifications and accommodations, such as a ramp for a child in a wheelchair.

If your child qualifies for special education, the local public-school district is required to provide a full range of special education services. In the private school placement, your child may be eligible for “equitable services,” public funds that are set aside specifically for students with disabilities whose parents place them in private school. This funding is limited and its use is largely up to the discretion of the local public-school district.

The public-school writes what is called a “service plan,” (sometimes called an Individual Services Plan—ISP). This written plan resembles an IEP but is generally less comprehensive and not bound by IDEA.

Here are highlighted points to remember when choosing a private school placement:

Private schools must uphold the anti-discrimination accommodations provided through Section 504 the ADA.

Private schools are not bound by IDEA and therefore do not have to provide a full range of special education services.

Children in private schools are not guaranteed access to the same services they would receive in public school.

The public-school district, where the student’s private school is located, is responsible for providing evaluations and re-evaluations.

A child enrolled in a private school may have a non-binding Service Plan rather than an IEP.

Here are some resource links to more information:

US Department of Education booklet for parents choosing private school: https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/speced/privateschools/idea.pdf

Understood.org describes the difference between IEPs and Service Plans: https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/special-education-basics/the-difference-between-ieps-and-service-plans

Understood.org on the evaluation process: https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/your-childs-rights/evaluation-rights/are-private-schools-required-to-evaluate-for-special-education

Understood.org about private school choice: https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/choosing-starting-school/finding-right-school/6-things-to-know-about-private-schools-and-special-education

IDEA: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/

Wrightslaw article on IDEA and private schools: http://www.wrightslaw.com/blog/idea-2004-and-private-schools/

ADA.gov: https://www.ada.gov/2010_regs.htm

Ramps: ADA specifications for wheelchair ramps 

OSPI: www.k12.wa.us