GAO Reports Disturbing Findings Concerning Private School Choice Programs
Students with disabilities that transfer to private schools lose protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This includes the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and all least restrictive environment (LRE) requirements. Such students - referred to as “parentally placed” children - are entitled to “equitable services” under the law and must be provided with an Individualized Education Services Program or IESP, rather than an IEP. Although only one letter separates an IEP and an IESP, the ramifications of receiving an IESP rather than an IEP are huge -- the local committee on special education need not provide a special education program to parentally placed students and the parents of a parentally placed student may not seek tuition reimbursement from the school district.
One unfortunate part of the IDEA is that it does not require school districts to notify parents of this loss of rights when they choose to enroll their child in a private school. This becomes even more of a problem when parents choose to place their children in private schools using public funding. The Government Accountability Office recently examined whether private school choice programs – programs that offer public money for students to attend private schools - take any efforts to notify parents of their loss of rights under the IDEA when the student transfers to a private school. The study examined programs that offered vouchers or educational savings accounts to parents to use toward private school tuition.
Disturbingly, the GAO study found that 83 percent of the private schools examined provided either no information about changes in IDEA rights or inaccurate information. Even more disturbingly, these schools all served students with disabilities. The report recommended that Congress amend the IDEA to include a notification requirement concerning a change in IDEA rights.
New York State does not currently offer the type of voucher or ESA program addressed by the study, however, it is still important for parents to understand the changes to their IDEA rights prior to enrolling their child in a private school. Additionally, if you have unilaterally placed your child in a private school and intend to seek tuition reimbursement from the school district, alarm bells should go off if you hear the school district refer to your child as "parentally placed." Parents should correct that characterization as soon as they hear it from a CSE representative.