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FAQ: Private Schools and Students with Disabilities

questions-and-answersQ: What are private schools required to do in order to serve students with disabilities?

A:  Unlike public schools, private schools (K-12) are not required to follow federal and state special education laws. If parents make a decision on their own to enroll their child in a private school, they should understand that the school has a lot of power to decide how much they are willing to do in order to serve that child. This is true whether the child has a disability or not.

Private schools do have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires basic access to a private school’s buildings and programs. Students cannot be discriminated against, treated unequally, or isolated because of their disability. Private schools can set admission requirements, but they cannot intentionally screen out applicants with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to attend.

Private schools must make “reasonable modifications” to policies, practices and procedures to provide equal access. They are required to provide aids and services to allow people with vision, hearing or speech impairments to communicate effectively. Private schools are not required to provide modifications, accommodations, aids or services that would create an excessive burden for them. When deciding exactly how to meet the needs of a student, parent or employee with a disability, factors can be considered such as how the cost of the aid or service compares to the overall resources available to the school. If resources are very limited, a school can choose less expensive options.

Private schools do not have to provide special education instruction or services like speech, occupational or physical therapy.

Private schools do not have to fundamentally alter their program in order to accommodate a student’s disability. For example, a school that has an identity based on having an advanced curriculum can remove a student who was working well below grade level. A school that focuses on hands-on learning in the natural outdoor environment can refuse to serve a student who is extremely fearful of most animals and insects.

We are often asked about what private schools are required to do by law. However, there are many private schools that voluntarily go beyond the minimum requirements. Some offer extra academic instruction for struggling students. Some will try hard to work with a student who has behavior challenges. If your child has a disability and you are thinking about private school, you should look at more than test scores or college acceptance rates. Ask if they offer additional support for students who need it. Pay attention to body language and other clues when you speak with school staff. Those may tell you a lot about how willing the school is to make an extra effort to help all of their students succeed.

“School Choice” for Students with Disabilities. Part 2: Private Schools

While public schools have a legal obligation to provide a free appropriate public education to students who have disabilities, some parents wonder whether their child might be better off in a private school. Private schools often have smaller class sizes than typical public schools and many boast about high student achievement. It is also rare to hear about major discipline problems in private schools. Parents might imagine that their child could get more attention in such a setting. So far, so good.

Private schools, however, are not going to be a perfect solution for every child. There are many things to consider. Private schools DO get to hand pick their students. Children have to apply and be accepted in order to attend.  Most enrollment contracts also allow private schools to dismiss students at any point during the year.

Depending on the school’s accreditation, parents may not be able to assume that all of the teachers are licensed. If the school is connected to a religious organization, religion might be infused into the curriculum or school activities. Also, if a parent has a dispute within a private school, there may be very few steps that they can take.

If you are thinking about looking into private schools for your child, the two biggest factors will probably be cost and the amount of disability support that the school offers.


At private schools, parents usually pay for everything: tuition, school supplies, transportation, assorted fees, and the costs associated with extra-curricular activities. Private school costs vary tremendously from one school to the next. Some schools have need-based financial assistance, but they may not advertise that fact.

North Carolina now has two K-12 grant programs that can help some families pay for the cost of sending their child to a private school. The Opportunity Scholarship Program can pay up to $4,200 per year toward the cost of tuition and required fees. In order to be eligible, household income cannot exceed set guidelines. The Disabilities Grant Program awards up to $8,000 per year, which can be used for tuition, fees and other qualified expenses related to educating children with disabilities who are enrolled in a private or home school. There are no income restrictions, but the student must be eligible for special education services using public school guidelines. Contact the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority for more information about the grant programs and how to apply.

Disability Support:

Even though pubic school systems have to spend a certain amount of money serving students who are enrolled in private schools, they can limit the type of services that they provide. Students enrolled in private schools do not have an individual right to special education services from the public school system. Parents should not expect that a child’s public school IEP will be followed after the child enrolls in a private school.

Private schools are not required to provide special education services at all! They can decide how much extra instruction and support they are willing to provide to students. The partial exception to this rule are private schools that receive federal funds. Those schools are required to provide reasonable accommodations and otherwise comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

There are a handful of private schools in North Carolina designed specifically to serve students with disabilities. Most of these schools are in or around major cities. Most also target children with certain disabilities rather than attempt to meet the needs of everyone. Because of low student-to-staff ratios, these schools are usually very expensive.

For the vast majority of private schools student support is limited to some remediation or intervention by a general education teacher or school counselor.  They may allow private speech or occupational therapists to work with students at school. A few schools have a special education teacher on staff. Others have staff who are willing to provide tutoring services outside regular school hours. There is often an additional cost for most of these support services. Some private schools do not offer any extra instruction or support, leaving parents on their own to locate and pay for the services that their child may need.

Questions to ask if you are considering enrolling your child in a private school:

  • Does the school have much experience working with students who have disabilities? What about students with disabilities like your child?
  • What types of supports and/or special instruction are available?
  • Are there teachers with relevant specialized training?
  • What happens if a child needs a service such as counseling, speech, occupational or physical therapy?
  • How do they handle students who have emotional or behavioral needs?
  • Under what circumstances might a student be asked to leave the school? (Read the refund policy and enrollment contract carefully before signing it.)

Having a say in where your child goes to school comes with a lot of responsibility. Do your research. Ask lots of questions. Consider all of the potential impacts on the whole family. There will likely be some trade-offs. Think about which things are most important. Take a deep breath…make the best decision that you can…and don’t look back. If necessary, you can make a different choice next year.

“School Choice” for Students with Disabilities. Part 1: Public Schools

Every school-aged child in the U.S. has a public school that they can attend once a parent registers them. Parents also have a right to choose to teach their child themselves in a home school, or they can enroll their child in a private school that they are admitted to. For many of today’s parents, choosing a school for their child is not quite that simple. In a two-part blog series, we will take a look at public and private school options.

Part 1: Public Schools

All public schools must follow federal and state laws regarding students with disabilities, such as IDEA and Section 504. These laws give students the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Public schools have to provide special education services and accommodations for students who need them because of a disability. If a student requires specially designed instruction, an individualized education program is created by an IEP team, which includes the parents. The IEP team makes decisions about the amount and type of special education services and supports that the student will get.

In most cases, school system administrators make the decision about which school the child will actually be assigned to.  Most children with disabilities attend the same school that they would go to if they did not have a disability. Other children may require specially designed instruction and services that are not available at the neighborhood school. These children are supposed to be assigned to the school closest to home that can meet their needs.

Parents who desire to have more control over their child’s education often want to know about any school options that may be available for them to select as a matter of choice. The following is a list of public school options, any of which may or may not be available in a particular community. There are also things that parents should think about when considering each option.

  • Year-round Calendar- Some school systems allow parents to choose between schools that operate on a traditional calendar that has a long summer break, and a year-round calendar that gives students several shorter breaks throughout the year. For many children, the shorter breaks allow them to make more consistent progress because they do not loose skills or get “rusty” over a long school break.
  • Magnet Schools– These schools follow the standard course of study, but also offer an enriched curriculum or special instructional approach based on a particular theme, area of study or philosophy. When considering a magnet school it is important to look for a good match between the student’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. For example, a child who has difficulty with oral expression in his primary language may not be the best candidate for a language immersion magnet where most of the instruction is in a second language.
  • Charter Schools- Like magnet schools, they may have a particular focus or mission that sets them apart from regular public schools. In North Carolina, charter schools operate independent of the larger local school systems around them and they do not have geographic boundaries for attendance. Because they are public schools, charter schools do not charge tuition. They may or may not provide some sort of transportation assistance. In NC, charter schools may also use unlicensed teachers for up to 50% of their instructional staff. This creates opportunities as well as challenges.

While charter schools do not get to hand-pick their students, some students may have disability-related needs that cannot be adequately addressed within a particular charter school. For example, a school that was granted its charter based on having a college preparatory curriculum, would not be required to develop a totally different series of courses for a high school student who has a significant intellectual disability.

Many parents like the idea of a smaller school and possibly smaller class sizes. However, charter schools also have fewer in-house staff resources to address special needs than a regular school system. Most charter schools do not have a school nurse or behavior specialist on their staff.  They may contract with private providers for services such as evaluations and speech, occupational or physical therapy. They may have only one or two special education teachers, and the person who functions as the Special Education Director may not have a special education background at all. The staff limitations may negatively impact the school’s ability to effectively address the challenges of students with significant, complex or uncommon disabilities.

If you are considering a magnet or charter school for your child:

  • Check out the website of any schools that you are considering. Pay particular attention to the information found under headings such as “About our school” or “Academics.” Looking at the staff list may give you an idea of who is available to provide student support services and what the school’s priorities are.
  • Think about whether the things that make that school different from others is a good match with the things that make your child a unique individual.
  • Attend an Open House or arrange a personal tour. 
  • Ask questions about how they address the needs of students with disabilities.
    • If the response is that they do not have any students with disabilities, consider that a red flag.
    • If they describe something that sounds like a one-size-fits-all approach, ask what happens with students who do not benefit from that approach.
  • If relevant, ask how the school handles challenging behavior.
    • Listen for mention of positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS)
    • Be wary if they talk about “zero tolerance” policies and behavior contracts, focus solely on punishment, or if they say that they do not have any behavior problems at that school.
  • Positive signs can include mention of flexibility; willingness to make adjustments; emphasis on addressing individual student needs and/or learning styles; use of outside resources or consultants; commitment to on-going staff development; teachers with specialized training and experience relevant to your child’s needs; collaboration with parents; and anything else that may be very important to you and your child.

School choice works best when parents have enough information to make informed decisions.