Special Education and Reimbursement

  • By:sierraedlaw

Parents who have children with physical and/or learning disabilities have a difficult time finding a public school that offers all of the services a special needs kid requires to thrive in a classroom. Federal law mandates public schools must offer tailored special education service programs for students who suffer from a wide variety of disabilities.

Tina Watson found that special education becomes an even tougher goal to accomplish in private schools, especially when it comes to reimbursement for the much higher tuition and other special education costs.

“I did my homework about laws such as IDEA, but I had no clue as to how I get reimbursed for higher private special education costs.”

Tina experienced the financial hit that far too many other parents like her might not have to endure. The question is an important one for parents: Are ways there to recoup money from public schools to account for the costs of educating special needs children in private schools?


The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) represents a federal statute that ensures children suffering from disabilities receive the educational services they need to succeed. However, the legal language of IDEA pertains to public school systems. IDEA sets the standard for how states provide early intervention to meet the needs of children with learning and/or physical disabilities. The fundamental rule of IDEA states school must provide disabled students with free appropriate public educations (FAPE). If the schools do not provide FAPE, then parents have the legal right to request financial support to pay for special education accommodations.

The question remains is do parents who send their kids to private schools qualify for the same reimbursement benefits?

Reimbursement for Private School Special Education

During the 1980s, the United States Supreme Court made a landmark decision that muddled the private school special education reimbursement question. The court majority wrote that special needs children are only allowed under IDEA “Appropriate” special education services, not necessarily the best special education services offered by private schools. The rationale behind the decision centered on the word “Appropriate” mentioned in IDEA. If a public school offers appropriate special education services, then parents of special need kids should not receive reimbursements for the better special education services offered by private school.

What is Appropriate?

Several legal decisions that followed Rowley have narrowed the definition of appropriate. Two factors stand out as inappropriate actions conducted by schools. First, it is considered inappropriate for a school to deny or ignore parent requests for an evaluation of their child. The second inappropriate action involves failing to provide FAPE. The two inappropriate actions often produce due process hearings where parent air grievances that concern the inappropriate actions taken by the school. Parent must submit evidence to prove inappropriate actions, but if successful, they can seek reimbursement for expenses incurred by providing special education services for their child at a private school.

2009 Supreme Court Decision

In 2009, the Supreme Court expanded its legal definition of “Appropriate” by a decision made in the Forest case. The ruling stated that public school districts that do not offer FAPE to special needs children might have to pay for private school tuition under certain conditions. Parents who give schools the opportunity to provide FAPE and the school failed to provide appropriate FAPE services can ask to receive reimbursements for private school special education. The court did not outright say parent have the legal right to reimbursements, just that parents have the legal right to ask for reimbursements for private school special education.

Eight years have passed since the Forest ruling. No other United States Supreme court case has solved the reimbursement question. Several cases backlogged in the system address the question of reimbursement, but it is not clear if the high court will allow another similar case on its busy docket.

Posted in: District Lawsuits, Student Advocacy