Reimagining Education

ESA 101: Private schools and students with special needs

There is a lot of misinformation floating around about how an ESA program would impact students with special needs.

The fact is that students with special needs in private schools still receive a wide range of services and can actually save the public school system a lot of money. The fact is that there are already students with special needs who attend private schools very successfully.  

What responsibility do public schools have for special needs students in private schools?

The primary responsibility of public schools for students with special needs in private schools (or those who are being homeschooled) is identifying those students through Child Find and making sure the student’s family knows how to receive an evaluation.

The public school where the private school is located, not where the student is living, is responsible for identifying students with special needs and meeting with the family to determine if the student qualifies for one of the thirteen categories of U.S. Department of Education’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is the same obligation the public school would have if the student was attending the public school.

What is the difference between the services a public school is required to provide public and private students?

Students enrolled in a public school are guaranteed what is called Fair and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Public schools must meet the requirements for a public school student’s FAPE regardless of cost or funding from local, state, and federal sources.

Public schools are only required to provide students in private schools or homeschooling situations with a proportionate share of services. Public schools do not send any money or funding to private schools for their students with special needs, but they are required to provide a proportionate share of services for those students.

So what is a proportionate share of services?

Each fall private schools register with the state and report how many students they have enrolled that qualify for an IEP.

Typically, the largest number of students needing services are students who need speech/language therapy.

Private schools students who qualify for an ISP, generate their own federal funds. Those funds are distributed to public school districts along with the funds generated by public school students.

The number of students with special needs in private schools are combined with the public school students with special needs and reported to the federal government which, in turn, disburses funds to the public school to serve all of those students (both public and private).

The public school is then responsible for ensuring that the private school students receive a proportionate share of services from the federal funding they generated. This generally results in public schools providing speech therapies, but it can vary by student or school district.

How does this save districts money?

Under the proportionate share of services process, public schools use federal funding that is based on the number of public and private students with special needs.

That means that any services provided are paid for with funds generated by the student on a federal level and the public school is simply administering how those funds are translated into services.

Students are not eligible for FAPE while they are enrolled in a private school. Some public school students require more support than is covered by the federal funds they generate. If these students enroll in private schools, the district is no longer obligated to provide FAPE and will save money.

Since FAPE is not tied to funding, that means that depending on the needs of the child (if for instance, FAPE requires a full-time aide to help the student each day), the public school can potentially save a lot of money when the student moves to a private school.

But what about the student? Don’t they lose needed services?

In both Kansas City and St. Louis there are regional nonprofits focused on raising funds to help ensure that students in private schools receive the services they need.

Every private school is different and in some cases where a student has a lot of special needs, families do end up using insurance or spending their own funds to supplement what the private school can provide. Many private schools have worked very hard to create inclusive environments where students with special needs get the support they need to be successful.

In fact, many families find that the inclusive, small-knit community of a private school provides more supports for students with special needs than they received in a public school. A number of private schools in Missouri, like Marian Hope Academy are specifically designed to serve students with special needs.

Other schools actually give students without special needs the opportunity to provide support for students with special needs to improve inclusion and support.

In the Kansas City area, for example, the Catholic Diocese has developed a nationally recognized peer mentoring program that offers high school juniors and seniors a course where the students serve as a para-professional for students with special needs for one hour as they earn a course credit.

The students participating in the course are trained and supervised by a special education teacher but interact with students with special needs on a personal level which leads to much greater social interaction and inclusion than if the students with special needs were getting support from an adult.

If private education does not work out students can always move back to a public school

Although the public school’s requirement to provide FAPE does not apply to private school students, if a family is not happy with the services they are receiving at a private school they can always re-enroll in a public school and their child will be qualified for the full FAPE support they were previously receiving.

In this case families are not required to start the IEP process from scratch.

This provides students with special needs who may be needing more inclusion the opportunity to explore what private education can offer without worrying about losing what was being provided by their public school.

For more information check out this publication from the U.S. Department of Education.

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