At a glance
If you transfer to a new school within your school district, your child’s IEP doesn’t change.
If you transfer to another school district in or out of state, your child may need a new IEP.
IEPs are used nationwide, but different states may have special rules.
You and the school have worked together and come up with an IEP. You’ve decided what services your child needs, and you have a plan for reaching your child’s goals. Then you discover you need to switch schools.
So what happens to your child’s IEP? Does it go wherever your child goes? The answer: Not always.
The first thing to know is that all states and public schools must follow federal law. They must meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under IDEA, they must provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) through an IEP to all eligible children.
But different states may have additional special education laws. And although the term IEP is used nationwide, states may also use different words to talk about some of their services. Even different school districts in the same state may do things slightly differently.
With all this in mind, here are six scenarios when your child might switch schools, and what happens to an IEP in those situations.
Scenario #1: Switching schools within the school district
When you move schools within the school district, your child’s IEP stays in place. This is the most clear-cut scenario. An IEP is a legally binding program created by you and the local school district. Since you didn’t move out of district, the IEP doesn’t change. However, the IEP case manager, the special education teacher, and the people who provide related services will likely be different.
Scenario #2: Switching to another school district in the same state
When you move to another school district in the same state, your child’s new school needs to provide what’s known as “comparable services.” That means the school must provide the same type of services at the same frequency as what’s in your child’s current IEP. The services may not be exactly the same, but they must be similar. That includes any extended school year (ESY) services.
Comparable services stay in place until the new school either adopts your child’s current IEP as is, or develops a new one. To develop a new IEP, the school district must go through the standard IEP process. That means you remain a part of the IEP team and will be involved in developing the new program.
Scenario #3: Switching to a school district in another state
When you move to another state, your child may face different criteria around eligibility for special education services. Your child’s new school must decide if your child qualifies under the state’s rules. That may require a new evaluation. If your child is found eligible, the school will develop a new IEP. As always, you’ll have a chance to give input.
While the new school is evaluating your child, it must continue to provide comparable services. You can find out more specifics from the department of education or from the Parent Training and Information Center in the state you’re moving to. It’s a good idea to request your child’s school records as early as possible if you know you’ll be moving out of state.
Scenario #4: Switching to a private school (or out-of-district placement)
Private schools don’t have to provide IEPs. If you decide on your own to move your child from a public to a private school, the IEP won’t follow you. Your child may be able to get a service plan from the school district where the private school is located. However, this type of plan won’t offer as many services as a standard IEP. (Learn more about the difference between service plans and IEPs.)
In some cases, a school district may place a child with an IEP in an out-of-district private school. This is treated as an educational placement, not as a switch of schools. So generally, your child’s IEP will remain in place. However, it’s likely that new people will join the IEP team, and that different people will start working with your child.
Placing a child out-of-district is an IEP team decision. If you don’t agree, learn about your options for dispute resolution.
Scenario #5: Switching schools for a military transfer
Many military families move frequently. And while kids often attend traditional public schools, some go to schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). There are DoDEA schools in seven states, Guam, and Puerto Rico, and in foreign countries. All DoDEA schools offer special education services.
If your child has an IEP and is transferring from a traditional public school to a DoDEA school, the DoDEA school will need your child’s educational records. This includes all the evaluation information and the current IEP. The DoDEA then has 30 days to either re-evaluate your child or adopt the existing IEP. In the meantime, it must provide FAPE and comparable services.
If your child is transferring from one DoDEA school to another, the new DoDEA school must provide comparable services for 30 days as well. Then, it can either adopt the IEP from the previous DoDEA school or develop a new one.
It can be challenging for military families to maintain services for a child with an IEP when transferring. For help, families can enroll in and seek guidance from the military’s Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP).
Scenario #6: Switching schools as a foster child
Just like other students, kids in foster care with IEPs are entitled to comparable services when they switch school districts in or out of state. However, developing a new IEP can be a little more complex.
Federal law makes clear that parents are equal partners in the IEP process. And parents retain their educational rights unless those rights are specifically taken away by the court.
That means that foster parents or child welfare workers often can't fill the role of parent at an IEP meeting. If a parent who retains educational rights can’t participate, the court may appoint a legal guardian. Or, the state or school district may recommend or appoint a “surrogate parent” to fill that role.
To help coordinate the IEP process for foster kids, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) suggests that states have a point of contact (POC) to work with child welfare agencies. The POC works to make sure all the necessary parties are involved in making educational decisions about children in foster care. (Explore a PDF that explains how POC works in more detail.)
Schools can’t delay services for “highly mobile” students
For most kids, a switch in schools happens occasionally, due to a family move or other reasons. But some kids switch schools more frequently. ED refers to these students as “highly mobile.” This may include students in military families, children in foster care, and migrant children, as well as families experiencing homelessness.
ED has instructed schools to make sure that “highly mobile” students receive FAPE without delay. (See a PDF of the ED’s guidance on “highly mobile” students.) If your family moves frequently, contact your child’s new school as soon as you know you’re moving, to get the right services in place.
Whatever the reason for a switch in schools, you and your child have the same rights under special education law no matter which public school your child attends. Explore and understand these rights. Download a school introduction letter for your child to use. And read about different school options for kids with learning and thinking differences.
Your child has a right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) no matter where you move — it’s a federal law.
If you move to another school district in or out of state, the new school doesn’t have to use the old IEP.
Until a new IEP is in place, the new school must continue to give your child services comparable to those in the old IEP.
Tell us what interests you
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Melody Musgrove, EdD served as director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education.