Can my child's school district refuse to send her to private school?

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Question:

My child has attention deficit disorder. The school district agrees that she's eligible for special education, but they refuse to send her to a nearby private school that specializes in teaching kids with learning disabilities. The school district says that it can give her the help she needs in the regular classroom, with a part-time aide, but I think they're just trying to get out of paying for the private school. Can they do that?

Answer:

In the field of special education, there aren't too many clear-cut rules. Instead, everything depends on the specifics of your child's disability -- how it affects her learning, what she needs to be successful, and which environment would be appropriate for her.

The federal special education law -- the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA -- entitles disabled kids to a free, appropriate education. But an appropriate education doesn't necessarily mean the best education possible. The school district is required only to meet your child's specific learning needs, not to provide the Rolls Royce of academic options. So the answer to your question depends on whether the school's proposal fits the bill. Will your child be able to concentrate and learn effectively with the part-time assistance of an aide? Will the aide have experience and training in ADD? Has past experience shown that your child will thrive in a regular classroom environment or get lost in the shuffle?

If you really want your child in that private school, you'll have to overcome a couple of obstacles. First, you'll have to show that the school's proposal is not appropriate for your daughter. And second, you'll have to show that your child should be removed from the regular classroom. IDEA states a clear preference for mainstreaming -- keeping kids with disabilities in the classroom they would have attended if they had no disability. This doesn't mean that you won't prevail, but your battle will be distinctly uphill.

The good news is that if that private school really is the only appropriate placement for your daughter, then the school district is obligated to provide it, regardless of the cost of tuition.

 

Next Steps 

For more guidance on special education and the IEP process, read The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by attorney Lawrence Siegel (Nolo).

Or, if your child has a learning disability (as opposed to another type of disability), read Nolo's IEP Guide: Learning Disabilities (Nolo), in which Lawrence Siegel tailors his discussion of special education and IEPs specifically for the parents of children with learning disabilities.

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