Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all children with disabilities must receive “free appropriate public education” tailored to their needs. If your public school district can’t offer a suitable special ed program, you’re entitled to have your child placed in a private school—and to have the district pay for it (20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)).
What if the district won’t agree to do that, even though you believe the school isn’t providing what your child needs to make progress? You could simply find a private school with a program you like and move your child there. If that’s a financial stretch—as it would be for most parents—can you get the district to pay you back for the tuition? Possibly, but it could be a long battle.
Jumping Through the Reimbursement Hoops
Sometimes, school officials refuse to provide any special ed services, because they claim a student isn’t eligible under IDEA. Other times, the school won’t make any real changes in a child’s individualized education program (IEP) despite the lack of progress. Either way, parents must file what’s known as a “due process complaint” to challenge the school’s decision. (See our article on the IDEA dispute resolution process for more details.)
Ultimately, a hearing officer or court may order the school district to reimburse the parents for the private school tuition if the officer or judge finds that:
- the public school didn’t promptly give the student appropriate special ed, and
- the private school placement is appropriate.
Meanwhile, if parents move their child to private school while they wait for the outcome of the dispute resolution process, they must either:
- tell school representatives of their plans at the last IEP meeting they attend, or
- give the district written notice at least 10 business days before they withdraw the student from public school.
If the parents didn’t meet those notice requirements or make their child available for an evaluation, the officer or judge may reduce or deny any reimbursement.
Difficult, But Not Impossible
The process of fighting a school district to get reimbursed for private school tuition can be lengthy, stressful, and expensive—especially if it moves to the courts. And the results are by no means certain. Take two examples that went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court:
- Two years after a high school decided that a freshman wasn’t eligible for special ed, the boy’s parents took him out of school, enrolled him in a private academy, and filed a complaint to seek reimbursement for the tuition. The dispute made its way to the Supreme Court, which found that as a general rule, parents could be eligible for reimbursement even if they’d never received special ed services from the public school. That seemed like a victory for the parents. But after the case went back for reconsideration, the district court found that it wouldn’t be fair to award reimbursement in this case because the real reason for the move to private school was the boy’s behavior problems, not his ADHD diagnosis or the school’s failure to provide special ed. The appeals court agreed, and the Supreme Court let that decision stand. (Forest Grove School Dist. v. T.A., 638 F.3d 1234 (9th Cir. 2011)).
- The parents of an autistic boy believed he wasn’t making any progress in public school, but the school essentially offered the same IEP year after year. The parents then enrolled their son in a private school with a program for autistic kids, where he did much better. When the parents tried to get reimbursement for the tuition, the hearing officer and courts agreed with the school that its program was adequate. But the Supreme Court ruled that an IEP must be designed to enable a student to make progress that’s “appropriately ambitious” in light of the child’s individual circumstances. (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Dist. RE-1, 137 S.Ct. 988 (2017); for more details, see our article on what’s appropriate education under the IDEA.)
Talking With a Lawyer
If you’re thinking of moving your special ed child from public to private school—with the hope that the school district will eventually pay for the fees—consider speaking with a special education lawyer about your options. The IDEA and its companion regulations are complicated and can be difficult to understand. An attorney who’s experienced in this field should be able to explain how the law applies in your situation. A lawyer can also advise or represent you in dispute resolution proceedings—or before then, when you’re negotiating with school officials to change your child’s IEP or get approval for a private school placement.