Special Education Placement Options

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What are Special Education Private Schools?

By law, public schools are required to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all children in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). If a child’s needs cannot be met in the public school, then they must pay for the child to attend an alternative placement that meets the child’s needs. A child’s services and placement are determined by their IEP, not by what the school has available.

Special education private day schools are:

  • created for children who have educational needs that are beyond what can be offered in their local public schools
  • designed to meet a student’s unique learning, social, and emotional needs and serve many types of disabilities
  • sometimes called “Chapter 766” schools. Chapter 766 (now Mass general law Ch 71B) refers to the Massachusetts law that guarantees the rights of children with special needs (age 3-21 years) to an educational program that meets their needs.
  • located throughout Massachusetts and the nation
  • receive public funding; typically, tuition is paid by the local public school system or other agencies that referred the child. Because local school systems are required to educate every student in their community, they are responsible for funding tuition (with some reimbursement from the circuit breaker funds; link to glossary term).

Some children return to the general education classroom in their public schools after a year or more in a special education private school. Some stay for several years, and others graduate high school from private placements. The key to students returning is their obtaining the skills needed to function not only in the classroom but in society. A vast array of individualized services can be provided to achieve this goal, such as special education, psychiatry, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, psychological/social work services, adaptive physical education and recreation, nursing services, life skills training, vocational training, and job placement.

Special education private schools are different from other private schools (such as parochial/religious schools, Montessori or Waldorf schools, college prep private schools).

Unlike private special education schools, other private schools:

  • are chosen and paid for by parents
  • do not necessarily require DESE approval
  • are not obligated by law to follow IEPs or 504 plans but may accept them
  • may or may not serve children with special needs (however, if a child is eligible for an IEP and parents decide to pursue one of these schools, the public school is still obligated to provide the services the child qualifies for under an IEP)

Sometimes residential placement consists of a group home in the community located several miles from the private special education school building. Or there may be a campus-style setting where the school and housing are within walking distance of one another, similar to a small college campus. Most of the residences house small numbers of children (often less than 10). A residential school or treatment center may have one large school building serving dozens or hundreds of students, along with several residences that serve anywhere from 4 – 25 or more children in each home, residence hall, or apartment building.

We cannot emphasize enough that residential schools today are very different than the institutions of the past.  When people initially hear or think about a child in a residential placement, these old images may unfortunately come to mind.  However, not only can children receive the intensive level of services and education that their severe disabilities require, but they can also be extremely well-cared for. For the past several decades, the disability community has advocated for giving adults with disabilities the opportunity to live in the community rather than in institutions. It is critical to mention that many current residential placements for children meet these criteria too.

Typically, the agency that referred the child pays for Private Special Education Schools. When the public school has agreed that it cannot meet a student’s needs, the school district pays the cost and transportation to a private special education school. The state and federal governments contribute to the cost to not overly burden towns with these tuition payments.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that ensures a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is available to all students with disabilities. Children have the right to access whatever level of care is deemed “appropriate” for their needs, even residential care, which may include special education and related services, room and board, and non-medical care at no cost to families. There are times when referrals for residential placement are made by an agency other than the child’s public school, such as primary care providers, hospitals, community mental health centers, child welfare agencies, or juvenile justice systems.

Every IEP has a page titled Placement Consent Form https://fcsn.org/placement-form-ages-3-5-pre-k/ or https://fcsn.org/placement-form-kindergarten-age-21/that describes the placement and referral source.

The child’s IEP team, which includes parents, is responsible for making decisions about a child’s school placement. A referral to a special education private school may be made when the team agrees that:

  • the public school is unable to provide a “free and appropriate public education.”
  • the child is not making effective progress in their current setting.

However, team members sometimes disagree regarding the definition of an ‘appropriate’ education and ‘effective’ progress. This means the process of obtaining a private school placement is often not simple or easy.

When a student requires a placement or service that is unavailable in-district, the district is responsible for identifying and funding that placement or service. The school may consider an in-district placement before an out-of-district placement. It may be helpful to show that other services have already been tried and were insufficient to provide the child with FAPE.

Some families have learned that more options were available to them through mediation. If team members do not agree on a placement, the process of mediation offers a neutral setting to explore educational placement and payment options. For example, some public schools will agree to fund placement at a non-DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) approved school because it is the best fit for a child. They may agree to cost-sharing, which may mean that parents pay a portion of the tuition and/or provide transportation to a day school.

Parents occasionally choose a unilateral placement, which means that they remove their child from their current school program and enroll the child in a private school without the school’s agreement. This can be expensive and risky, as parents must pay the tuition if they are unable to prove that the previous placement did not provide the child with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and the out of district placement does.

Most special education private schools are approved by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

Schools can be geared toward children with a certain disability (such as schools for children with visual or hearing impairments) or offer a particular educational or therapeutic approach (e.g., Applied Behavior Analysis for autism, Orton Gillingham for dyslexia).

The following websites provide information on both day and residential schools: