November 23, 2022

Special Education and Your Child: What You Need to Know About Funding for Private School

Private school might present itself as an attractive option for your special needs child. Private schools can provide full-time specialized support within a learning environment that maximizes children's academic potential. Under certain circumstances, the school district must pay for private school. To best explore this possibility, it is essential to speak with an attorney specializing in special education law. An attorney is best equipped to present your options and the steps to secure funding.

Special Education Funding: How it Works

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that requires schools and other academic programs to level the playing field for children with special needs. Federal law requires schools to provide these children with a free appropriate public education. Sometimes, the school district must front the costs for private school tuition and related expenses. In this scenario, the school district will fund a private education by reimbursing the parents for the private school tuition or providing prospective funding. Prospective funding is where the school district pays for private school expenses directly. Attorneys can usually secure prospective funding for parents by asserting a viable IDEA claim against the school district.

Three Key Cases

Three critical cases have established the right to private school funding for students with disabilities: Burlington, Carter, and Connors.

Burlington v. Department of Education (1984)

In Burlington, the father of a disabled child disagreed with the results of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) proposed by the school. The IEP would have placed the child in a rigid structure – a class of six other students with various special education needs. The father had his son independently evaluated by specialists who concluded that it was in the child's best interests to attend a private school for children with learning disabilities. The father unilaterally enrolled his child in a private school with a special education program tailored to his son's needs and fronted tuition costs. The Court's seminal ruling held that the school district's IEP was inappropriate and required it to reimburse the father for all expenses paid to the private school.  

The Burlington verdict confirmed that parents of special needs children could utilize a private school education at the school district's expense. In so doing, the Court set forth the following requirements commonly identified as the "Burlington Prerequisites," which must be established in order to obtain private school funding:

(1) that the public school provided an inappropriate education;

(2) that the private school must appropriately accommodate the child's educational needs; and

(3) that the public school's inability to properly educate the child was not due to the parent's involvement.

Florence County School District Four v. Carter (1993)

In this case, the parents of a special needs child were dissatisfied with the public school's proposed IEP, which stated that the child would receive three individualized periods per week, but otherwise remain in regular classes. After the school district denied their request to mediate, the parents moved the child to a private school with a special education program tailored to their needs. They fronted the costs of the private school tuition. The Court ruled that the school's proposed IEP was inappropriate for the child. Because the private school placement provided the child with an appropriate education under the IDEA, the school district was required to reimburse the parents for the private school's tuition costs.

This seminal decision extends to situations where the parents do not formally request reimbursement from the school district before enrolling their child in a private school. Under Carter, unilateral placement is reimbursable by the school district so long as the Burlington prerequisites are met. In other words, if the child is moved to a private school to meet their educational needs because the public school was unable to, the school district must reimburse the parents for the private school tuition!

Connors v. Mills (1998)

Connors is the seminal case establishing prospective funding. In that case, the mother of a child with special needs and the public school's administrative team agreed that remaining in the public school was not in the child's best interests. The mother then enrolled her child in a private school but requested that the school district pay the tuition upfront (as opposed to a reimbursement). The Court found that it would be unfair to force parents to bear the financial burden of sending their child to private school themselves. Therefore, once a parent demonstrates that the Burlington Prerequisites are met and that their financial circumstances prevent unilateral placement, the public school must immediately pay the private placement costs. Even if the family did not incur any out-of-pocket expenses for private schooling, they may still qualify for prospective funding if it is clear that the public school cannot meet the child's special needs.

These three federal court cases establish a parent's right to have the school district fund their child's placement in a private school. If you are considering private school for your child with a disability, the ability to pay the tuition costs is usually a top concern. The good news is that, in many cases, the school district must pay for your child's tuition and related expenses through reimbursement or prospective funding.

The attorneys at Mizrahi Kroub LLP strongly believe that every student deserves an equal opportunity to learn and succeed in school. The Firm helps parents secure the special education services offered by schools specifically tailored to their child's individual needs. The Firm also works with parents throughout the process, which usually starts with appropriate and comprehensive evaluations of the child (at no cost to you). Concerning private school placement, the Firm is skilled in securing either reimbursements or prospective funding of tuition costs. Typically, we will file a lawsuit on behalf of the special needs child. If we are victorious, we will oversee the transition to private school and ensure that the school district refunds the parents the tuition costs.

If you believe the school district should be funding your child's private school education, contact Mizrahi Kroub LLP today by either filling out an online form or calling (212) 595-6200 to schedule a free consultation with an experienced IDEA attorney.

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