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Washington State Sued Over Special Education Services in Religious Schools


A group of parents who have children in a Christian school are suing the state of Washington because it won't provide special education services to their children at the school; instead, the children have to leave campus.

In the article
, a lawyer representing the families says that the policy represents religious discrimination. The state attorney general's office responded that services are provided off-campus to parochial school students because state law bars the use of public funds for religious institutions.

Some may not know that local school districts are responsible for devoting a portion of their special education funding to students who are enrolled in private schools. I wrote an article about this in 2005, soon after the Individuals with Disabilities Act changed the law related to this responsibility.

Districts once were responsible for children who lived within the district's boundaries and attended private school, even if the private school itself was located outside of the district's boundaries. After the reauthorization, districts become responsible for students who attend private schools located within their boundaries, no matter where those students actually live.

In my 2005 article, I profiled a program for students with disabilities at a Catholic school in Northern Virginia. I didn't get into the issue of where the children actually received their services in my article, but it seems like they were going to their "base" public school to get them.

The U.S. Department of Education has created a document (pdf) outlining the rules and regulations that govern special education for private school students. In the document, the feds say "services may be provided on the premises of private, including religious, elementary and secondary schools, to the extent consistent with state and federal laws."

One way other states may have evaded controversies of this sort is by requiring students at any private school, whether secular or religious, to return to their base school for services. The other option, perhaps more expensive, is to make on-campus services available to all private school students. But creating a distinction between private school students at religious schools and those at secular schools may be the sticking point here.


It's been years since I have seen any evidence of this, but I know that at one time the solution in my own state/district--where the state law apparently opposed the provision of services within the private school buildings, was a travelling classroom. It was an RV outfitted for instruction. I would see these parked outside of Catholic schools, from time to time--with a long cord plugged in to provide electric. I remember at the time thinking what a silly was of money it was--but it met all legal requirements with a minimum of disruption to the student.

Wow... I had no idea that special needs students could not recieve their special education services at a relgious school. I understand why it is illegal for public funds to go to a religious school, by way of separation of church and state. However, I really think that this case is pushing the line. Honestly, students, regardless of their needs, should have the right to attend whatever school they wish to (as long as their parents are able to afford it, if the school is private). For special education students, this should be no different. The choice to attend a religious school should be given to anyone! As for students returning to their base school for the services they need, that seems to be an awful lot of hassel for the student, when he or she should be educated where they are paying to attend. Obviously, I think that special needs students should also be allowed to attend whichever school they wish.

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