Unilateral Placement: Moving From Public to Private School

By Geri Coleman Tucker
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At a Glance

  • If you move your child to a private school to get better special education, that’s called “unilateral placement.” 

  • There are times when public schools pay for private placements. 

  • It can be expensive and risky to make a unilateral placement.

Maybe public school isn’t working for your child. The evaluations, the IEP, the small classes, speech therapy and accommodations are all in place. And yet, your child is still falling behind. You feel you’ve got to make a change—and you’ve found a special private school with a great track record of working with children like yours.

You want to move your child to a private school. But will the public school district pay for the hefty tuition? The answer is maybe.

Federal law guarantees a free and appropriate public education to children with learning and thinking differences. So if your child isn’t making progress in public school, the question is, Is the education “appropriate”—in other words, is it working for your child?

When a parent moves a child to a private school to get better special education, that’s called “unilateral placement.” But if you don’t get the public school’s approval ahead of time, the school district doesn’t have to pay for private school.

It’s important to do your homework before you make a change. A little extra research could give you the best chance of having the public school district pay for private school.

Getting Advice

You might want to talk to an advisor at your state’s Parent Training and Information Center. Or get in touch with a parent advocate or lawyer before you make any move. They can explain your rights and share information about other cases like yours.

Notification Requirement

Before you enroll your child in private school, tell the public school about your plans. The best way is to send them a written letter 10 business days before you make the switch. This is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act if you want the public school to pay for the private school.

A school can legally deny funding if you don’t share concerns in advance. So it also makes sense to tell the school at your child’s IEP meeting or a progress meeting that he isn’t making progress and you plan to switch to private school. It’s always a good idea to document your concerns in writing, too. There’s still no guarantee the district will agree to pay, but at least you’re following the law.

Emergency Placement

If you can prove that you needed to make an emergency move to private school, the school district might consider your request to pay for it even if you haven’t given the 10-business-day notice in writing. Such cases, however, are rare.

Private School, Public Funds

A due process hearing will be held by a hearing officer or a court to decide whether the school district should pay for your child’s private school education. You’ll be asked to prove your child was not learning in public school and wasn’t getting a “free and appropriate public education.” You will want to hand over school records, such as progress reports, report cards, emails to teachers and anything else that supports your claim.

Another idea is to wait until you can prove your child is doing well in private school before you ask the public school to pay. Often, school districts fight requests to pay. But if the hearing officer or court sides with you, the district will have to pay.

Key Takeaways

  • Parents have to prove the public school education was not working for their child. 

  • The question of who pays for private school education is settled through a due process hearing

  • Consult your state’s Parent Training and Information Center, a lawyer or education expert, such as a parent advocate, for help.

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

Kristen L. Hodnett, MSEd 

is a clinical professor in the department of special education at Hunter College in New York City.

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