Private School Payment for Students with Disabilities

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Are school districts required to pay private school fees when parents of children with special needs remove such students from public school? The answer depends.

If the district has made a free appropriate public education (FAPE) available to the child, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not require school districts to pay for placement of children with disabilities in private special education programs because it is the parents' personal decision to do so.

Related: Overview of Learning Disabilities

Parent placement of children with special needs in private schools is typically referred to as a unilateral placement decision. The IDEA specifies that school districts are not responsible for paying for private programs when parents have made a unilateral decision.

Are Public School Districts Ever Required to Pay for Placement in Private Schools?

Under limited circumstances, it is possible that public school districts may be required to pay for private school placements. When students with disabilities cannot be served in a public school program and the child's individual education program (IEP) team agrees upon a private school placement for the child, the district is responsible for paying for the program.

In most cases, when the child's decision-making team considers a private school placement, an administrative meeting including the district's director of special education and superintendent is held. Together, these officials make that decision.

Must a District Pay for a Unilateral Placement?

While parents may feel they have a legitimate reason to suspect that a public school district cannot provide the child with appropriate education, that belief alone does not require the district to pay for a private school placement. Generally, court cases have established that districts must be given the opportunity to provide a child with an appropriate education.

If the district fails to provide proper education as required by law, parents may then request an appropriate alternative. This may involve a different teacher, program, school, or even a private school. If the district refuses, parents may file complaints, request mediation, or file for a due process hearing in their attempt to seek appropriate services.

If the child has had special education services in a public school in the past, and the parents choose to unilaterally place their child in a private school, a court or a hearing officer may require the school district to reimburse the parents for program costs. Tuition reimbursement will be required if the court or hearing officer finds that the district had not offered a FAPE and the private program is found appropriate.

School's Responsibility for Unilaterally Placed Children in Private Programs

While the IDEA does not require the school district to provide funding for a unilaterally placed child's program, it must include the child in the private school service plan, similar to an IEP. The ultimate goal for parents of students with disabilities is to find them the best education they can—be it at a public, private, or another form of schooling. 

A Word From Verywell

If your child is at a public school and you're dissatisfied with the education they're receiving, try to resolve your concerns with current administrators or faculty members before making the switch to private school. Tuition can be costly, and there's no guarantee your child's public school district will foot the bill.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Education. IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Ed.gov

  2. U.S. Department of Education. IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - Section 1412 (a) (10) (C) (i).

  3. U.S. Department of Education. IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - Section 1412 (a) (10) (B).

  4. National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). Learn the law: IDEA parent guide. 2014.

  5. Salmon Library. LibGuides - ED-331: Critical issues in special education: Decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court. Updated May, 2020.

  6. U.S. Department of Education. IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - Sec. 300.511 Impartial due process hearing.

  7. U.S. Department of Education. IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - Section 1412 (a) (10) (C) (ii).