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“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.

Cost:

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.

Placement versus Assignment for students with disabilities

questions-and-answersWhat is the difference between “placement” and “assignment” when it comes to students who have disabilities?  This topic should actually fall under the heading of: Questions parents don’t ask because they don’t know what they don’t know.

“Placement” and “assignment” are often used as though they mean the same thing in conversations about the education of typical students. However, there are some very real differences in how these words are used when talking about students who receive special education services. There are also big differences in how decisions about placement and assignment are made.

Special education placement describes the type and amount of special education and related services a student receives based on their Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP will also describe the location where the services will be delivered. The IEP will state whether the services will be provided within the general education setting, special education setting, or the total school environment. The team of people who create each student’s IEP includes the child’s parent(s), a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and someone who can represent the local education agency (LEA) or school system. The IEP team can include other individuals, depending on what is being discussed or when invited by the parent or school.

Students with disabilities must be educated alongside students who don’t have disabilities as much as possible, as long as their needs can be met. The IEP team has to explain why a student is removed from his non-disabled peers and why they cannot be adequately served in the general education setting, even with the use of supplemental aids and services. The least restrictive environment for each student must be determined based on the unique needs of that particular student and not factors such as age or type of disability.

Some students with disabilities stay in the general education setting all day long, some removed for a short time each day, and other students require a specialized environment for most of their day. There is a wide range, or continuum of alternative educational placements that the IEP team can consider. The amount of time that the student is removed from their non-disabled peers will determine whether their placement on the continuum is described as regular, resource, separate, separate school, residential, home/hospital, etc.  The IEP team, including the parent(s), has full responsibility for deciding special education placement.

Educational assignment refers to administrative decisions that are made by people who have been given certain authority to make them, as well as the guidance of school board or other policies. For example, principals typically have the authority to assign students to specific teachers. In North Carolina, principals also have sole authority over each student’s grade assignment or classification, including promotion and retention decisions.

Most school systems have a written policy that details how students are assigned to particular schools. In addition to a “home” school based on the student’s address, there may be other school options that parents can apply for by following certain steps. There may even be an appeal process if the request to change schools is denied.

If the IEP team has decided that a student’s disability-related needs require a specialized setting at, or beyond, the “separate” level of service, that student will be administratively assigned to the school closest to home where his or her needs can be met. School system administrators can decide where to locate various specialized classrooms, and they can be moved from one school year to the next. In most cases, parents of these children will not have a choice about which school their child will be assigned. Parents also do not have a right to pick and choose their child’s teachers.

If there are special considerations that make the standard administrative process or the resulting decision, not appropriate for your child, find out who has the authority to do something different. That would be the contact point where you should focus your efforts to advocate for your child. Communicate with the decision maker(s) to help them better understand all of the issues involved. If necessary, reach out to the school board members and others who actually create the policies that everyone else has to follow.

The IEP team process gives parents a clear role in making decisions about special education placement decisions, but parents can sometimes influence administrative decisions as well. It is important to be clear about which decisions you are talking about.