6 Things to Know About Private Schools and Special Education

By Geri Coleman Tucker
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At a Glance

  • Public school districts pay for some special education services at private schools.

  • Some private schools specialize in teaching students with learning and thinking differences.

  • Schools that don’t specialize in these areas may not offer much support for students with learning and thinking differences.

Maybe your child attends a private school, or you’re thinking of sending your child to a private school. If so, it’s important to know that some schools are much better than others at helping students with learning and thinking differences.

For example, an independent school for students with learning disabilities is a private school that specializes in teaching kids with these issues. Other schools may not offer much support. They may not even admit students who struggle in certain areas.

Looking for a school that’ll be just right for your child? Check out GreatSchools.org, where you can search for schools in your area and find out which ones will serve your child best.

It’s also important to know how special education law affects private schools. If your child qualifies for special education and you choose to send him to private school, he may be able to receive some special education services that are paid for by the public school district.

Here are key things to know about private school and special education.

1. Evaluations for Special Education Services

Federal law requires public school districts to look for and evaluate students who are suspected of having disabilities. This requirement is called Child Find. It applies to students who attend private school as well as those who attend public school or who are homeschooled.

This means that if you or your child’s teachers think he might have a learning disability, you can request an evaluation that is paid for by the public school system. Decisions about evaluating private school students are made by the public school district where the private school is located.

It’s a good idea to talk with your child’s teachers before you send a letter requesting an evaluation. The district will consult with your child’s school before deciding whether your child needs one. If the district agrees to an evaluation, it’s responsible for arranging and paying for these tests.

2. Equitable Services

If your child qualifies for special education, you can make a choice. You can move your child to your local public school so he can receive the full range of special education services. Or you can have him stay at the private school and get what’s called “equitable services.”

Equitable services are paid for by public funding. This funding is set aside specifically for students with disabilities whose parents place them in private school. But because this funding is limited, your child might receive fewer free services if he attends private school than if he switches to public school. For example, he might receive fewer one-on-one sessions with a speech therapist.

3. Service Plan

If you choose to send your child to private school, the school and the district may create what’s called a “service plan” (also called an “Individual Services Plan”). This written plan is similar to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). But a service plan tends to be less comprehensive than an IEP.

4. Teacher Certification

It’s important to note that public schools have strict guidelines for special education teachers. Teacher qualifications are spelled out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and in each state’s education laws.

Private schools may use different hiring standards. For example, the staff members at an independent school for students with learning disabilities are likely to have as much training in special education as the staff at a public school. But the same may not be true of the staff at, say, a military academy or a parochial school.

5. Accommodations

Private schools are usually willing to provide certain accommodations like extra time on tests and assistive technology. A private school may also allow your child to be tutored at the school, during the class day, by a private tutor that you pay for.

But it’s also possible that your child’s needs may be so great that the school will recommend you send him to a public school that has more resources. See examples of accommodations for kids with learning and thinking differences.

6. Placement Decisions

When a school district determines that a child is eligible for special education, the district will also decide which learning environment and special services are appropriate for him. Parents are part of the team that makes this decision, which is referred to as placement. For many students with learning and thinking differences, the most appropriate placement is in a general education classroom in their local public school.

But in some cases the district will agree to what’s called an out-of-district placement. That’s when the district you reside in agrees to pay for the cost of sending your child to a school that is approved by the state to educate students with a certain range of disabilities. This happens when the district agrees that your child’s local public school can’t meet his needs.

If you and the district disagree about which placement your child needs, you may want to consider a strategy called unilateral placement. This process involves notifying the district before enrolling your child in a private school.

However, to get the district to pay for the tuition, you’ll most likely have to use a dispute resolution option, like due process. (Download sample letters for dispute resolution.)

To learn more, watch as an expert talks through what you need to know about special education and private school.

Explore a list of what to look for as you research private schools. Read a personal story from a mom whose kids get special education services at private school. And if you’re considering using a voucher to pay for tuition, it’s important to understand how voucher programs work.

Key Takeaways

  • Private schools often agree to provide accommodations like extra time on tests and the use of assistive technology.

  • A services plan tends to be less comprehensive than an IEP.

  • Private schools can use different hiring standards than public schools, which have strict guidelines for special education teachers.

About the Author

About the Author

Geri Coleman Tucker 

is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor forUSA Today.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Mark J. Griffin, PhD 

was the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities.

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