The Special Education Placement Decision Making Process, explained.

placement options for special education students private out of district pile of pencils pens notebooks on table

Special Education Placement

Not only is IEP placement one of the most debated topics among parents, it’s also one of the most contentious issues you will have with your school district. So what are the placement options for learning disabled students? How do I get my child into a private placement? IEP placement is one of the most misunderstood IEP topics too.

“Can anyone tell me about this private school?” “Ugh! Why would you choose that instead of an inclusion classroom?! That is SO restrictive!” And so the debate about private schools vs. staying at your neighborhood school rages on. First, let’s tackle the parent misconceptions about IEP placement options.

placement options for special education students

Special Education Placement Law

So what does the law say about IEP placement? Here is the code directly from IDEA.

What IDEA says about placement.

Special Education Placement Decisions

Here are two very common misconceptions about Special Education Placement.

1. Placement is the last decision in the IEP process. First come the evaluations to determine areas of need. Then it moves to goals development and writing. Then supports and services to help the child achieve the goals. From there, the team should choose a placement that is best suited to implement that IEP. That is why, when schools mention placement first, advocates scream, “PREDETERMINATION!”

How in the world can you choose a placement if you don’t know what the needs, goals and supports are?

2. There is no list. Repeat after me, “There is no list, I have to do this research on my own.” This one is huge. I particularly encounter it when a child is aging into another school or program (such as from preschool to kindergarten). Parents expect that the school district is going to hand you this list and say, “Here. Here are ALL the possible placement options in our county for your child.”

Pro Tip: That is never going to happen. It just doesn’t work that way.

The team will go through the process and recommend a placement. The parent should be participating in all 5 major parts of the IEP process, so placement is just another step. Like anything else, you agree or disagree.

How IEP Placement Works

Remember, IEP Placement is the last decision in the process. Here are the steps:

  1. Thorough evaluations in all areas of suspected disability. From these, an accurate Present Levels Section is developed.
  2. Meaningful, measurable and appropriate goals are written, based upon the needs defined in present levels.
  3. The team decides on support, services and accommodations to help the child achieve those goals.
  4. Now, what placement is best suited to implement this IEP? Choose a placement on the LRE continuum.

So, it’s not hard to still follow this process if you have your eye on a particular placement. You just have to define it. What are they doing there, that your child needs, that cannot be done in his/her current placement? What program or service do they offer that cannot be gotten any place else…and what needs would be met by that program or service?

Make sense?

Types of Special Education Placements

Not all private schools provide special ed services, as they are not required to by law. I am not talking about getting your child placed in a parochial school or anything like that. This is about getting your child placed in a private special education school at public expense. It is often referred to as an out of district placement.

I am talking about the private schools that have evolved to primarily use ABA, or schools for the Blind, or the smaller class settings and special ed for some kids with HFA and co-morbid conditions.

Know Your State Programs for Placement

The takeaway here is that you must do research and network with other parents to learn what is available in your state. It varies tremendously!

  1. Some states have a voucher program like Florida. Research if your state has one. Know that you will likely have to sign away FAPE.
  2. NJ is one of many states that has school choice. So does Delaware. School choice generally means “fewer choices” for our kids, but I’ll pass on ranting about it for today.
  3. In either of the above scenarios, please contact your state’s Protection and Advocacy group for Disabilities and see if they can point you in the right direction.
  4. Pennsylvania is one of many states that has several ways of handling this. APS is an Approved Private School, the term we use in Pennsylvania. The state DoE has approved a list of schools, whom they have deemed “approved by the Secretary of Education to provide a free appropriate special education for students with severe disabilities. The schools are eligible to receive funds from the school districts and/or the Commonwealth for the education of these students.” Yes, they are usually a much more restrictive environment, which is unappealing to some. Usually, these kids are a part of what is known as “the Armstrong group.” (That term dates back to a 1979 court case.) However, you can still get your child into a private school, this will just be done via a settlement agreement. More on that later.

Non-Approved Private schools for Learning Disabilities

You may look at that list above and think, “Wait? I know of a school for reading disabilities and it’s not on that list.” Yes, it might be so. There are many other private schools out there that may specialize in something, they just have not gotten approval yet. (It’s a long and not very interesting saga.)

Due to the way funding is structured, it will likely be harder to get your child in a non-approved school. If it’s appropriate, and the only appropriate option, I’d keep pushing. But I would seriously consider the approved ones first as it is much less of a battle in most cases.

Private Placement via Settlement Agreement

You will need to read up on Settlement Agreements. Learn what they are and how they work. If you are offered one, have an attorney review it. This will cost you at least a few hundred bucks. But, if you do nothing else….never, ever, ever EVER sign a Settlement Agreement without a Special Education Attorney looking over it. I have seen too many parents live to regret this. A good attorney will catch things that you may not.

Settlement agreements, 99% of the time, will require that you sign away FAPE. This is because your home school district no longer has any control over the child’s education, IEP or FAPE. You really cannot expect them to be held liable for something over which they have no control. I’ll say it again–NO SETTLEMENT AGREEMENTS without an attorney reading it.

IEP and Private School

Sometimes a student’s educational and programming needs cannot be met in the regular classroom even with a significant amount of support. When this occurs, the team must decide on other placements. That may be an autism support or multiple disabilities classroom or program within the district. In some cases, it means a private school.

I think that the general consensus among parents with such students is that districts don’t “like” to send kids to private schools or out of district placements. Fact is, these schools are significantly more expensive than the public schools. It is not a decision that should be taken lightly, as the school district is the steward of our tax dollars. I don’t necessarily want them sending every kid that asks to go, to go to an APS.

Are school districts perhaps a little too conservative when it comes to these APS placements? Perhaps. I am sure that there are families out there who request an APS placement and their needs can be met in the public schools.

And I am sure that sometimes districts make placement decisions based on money rather than the child’s needs. And as they say, the truth lies somewhere in between.

However if that is the appropriate placement that is decided upon, the district is responsible for the tuition. If you are finding that your child’s needs are not being met in your public school and you want to consider an APS, there are some things you should know.

Placement Options for Special Education Students

Here are some things you should know if you are considering an out-of-district or private placement for your child with an IEP.

  1. An APS or out of district placement is not paradise. There are no miracle fixes or settings. If you are pursuing a private placement, chances are the relationship with your district has grown contentious. You may be frustrated at lack of progression or even regression. And you may be anxious to not have to work with some individuals anymore. That doesn’t mean everything gets miraculously fixed when you go to an out of district placement. You will still have personality issues. There will be teachers and therapists that you love, and ones that are harder to love. You will still have to do the whole IEP process at least once a year and talk about goals and butt heads over things like amounts of services and SDIs.
  2. Before you even begin to have the discussion with your district about private schools, research all of them. You know how it is. You’re in a waiting room some where or at some special needs event, and you start talking to another mom. She is just over the moon with how much progress her child has made at ‘such and such’ school. Your child has been having negative behaviors, plateauing and even regressing in some areas. You want to be as happy as she is, so you want your child at ‘such and such’ school. This is the wrong way to approach it. Having visited almost all of the placements in Chester County, I can tell you that each and everyone is very different. Keep it focused on your child and your child’s needs.
  3. You must have strong documentation to make the case for an out of district placement. Districts are very selective in making these referrals, and they should be. If you want this to be successful, you must make a strong case as to why your child’s needs cannot be met in the public schools. You must have documentation of progress, or lack thereof. You must have reasonable assurance to provide to the district as to why you can expect progress in the new placement. Districts are not required to provide the “best” programming, only appropriate programming. This is not an issue that will likely be settled in one IEP meeting. Be upfront and honest, no “gotchas!” in the meeting. If the private school is an appropriate placement for your child and you have the data, there is nothing to be gained by springing it on them in the meeting. Put it in your parent concerns that you want to discuss placement options and that you want an LEA present at the meeting who has the authority to make these decisions.
  4. Once your district agrees to send referrals: I’m going to put this here because in the past few months, I have now seen this issue occur three times over three different districts. The district agreed to send out referral packets to the placements that the parent requested. Most placement require the following for their referral packet: a letter, the most recent IEP and the most recent ER/RR. Sounds simple enough, huh? I have now seen three separate incidents where the district took, ahem, liberties in what they included in the letter. In one case, they drew up the letter, FBA/PBSP (included as part of IEP) when the student was in full-on de-escalation mode and crisis. It was a snapshot in time of this kid at his worst. Of course the placement rejected him, district is off the hook as it now looks like it was the APS’s decision, not the district’s. I have seen two other similar incidents where a school (mistakenly?) sent out a packet that would very likely get the child rejected from the placement.
  5. Why Research is Important: As you go through the process of requesting and pursuing an out of district placement for your child, make sure you know what is being sent out to them. Ask to see the letter and the packet that is being sent out. That still is no guarantee that that is in fact what they will send out, but it’s a start. If you child is rejected, call them and ask why. This is why the research portion of this is extremely in important; you may have in fact requested inappropriate placement.
  6. School pushing for private placement, parent does not want. In most cases, a private placement is a more restrictive environment. So, if you don’t want it, argue LRE. Approaching it from both sides, the team has to exhaust all options in the neighborhood school before moving to a more restrictive placement. Familiarize yourself with that concept and use that to push for staying in neighborhood school.

For Parents, researching private placements:

  • Do your research. Visit them all, network with other parents and clinicians. Go to open houses-where you will meet other parents, learn which other schools they are considering and listen to them ask questions you hadn’t thought of.
  • Gather your data. You must have significant amounts of data and documentation to support a move like this.

For Parents, researching voucher programs:

Recently a few states have begun a type of “voucher” program for students with IEPs. Basically, the district agrees to give the student a check or voucher for a predetermined amount of money, and family agrees to walk away, find their own education for the child and relinquish FAPE in the process.

Before you get all excited about that sum of money and not having to deal with your district anymore, please at least do these few things:

  • Make sure that the amount advertised is what you will in fact receive and not the “maximum amount able to be received.” You don’t want to get caught in a lurch of not being able to afford the school. Know what you are getting.
  • Make sure that you are certain of ALL the tuition and fees at the school you are choosing.
  • Keep in mind that the school district wouldn’t be offering this if it wasn’t a good deal for them.
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Please check with your specific state for details, as this can vary. This post was originally written in 2012, I am updating with new information and reposting. Whew! This is one of my longer posts, hope it helps. If you still have more questions, ask in our Facebook group.

placement options for special education students private out of district pile of pencils pens notebooks on table

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