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Who Pays for Private School Costs in Special Education?


When the parents of a special needs student decide to create their own education plan involving expensive private tutors, who should pay? That was the subject of a moving story that ran in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Jacqueline and Carl Simchick have been embroiled in a lengthy and costly legal battle with the Fairfax County, Va., school district seeking reimbursement for tutoring services for their son, Matthew. He was diagnosed with mental retardation, autism, and speech and language impairment, the article said.

Dissatisfied with Matthew’s progress at Fairfax public schools, the Simchicks pushed for more one-on-one instruction. When the school system would not provide it, they sent their son to a private tutoring center. And they sent the bill to Fairfax County. Fairfax officials argued that the tutoring center was not accredited and that the family was defying compulsory attendance laws, the Post reported.

The Simchicks told the Post they spent more than $700,000 in legal fees and school costs, raising the money by maxing out their credit cards, cashing in their older son's college savings, borrowing against their 401(k)s and refinancing their five-bedroom home four times.

After years of court decisions and appeals, a judge's ruling this month provided about a third of what the Simchicks sought, the Post said. They are considering whether to appeal.

Disputes over who pays for private school costs are among the most contentious in special education, with a growing number ending up in court, the Post said.


This is peanuts compared to the exorbitant expenditures in New York City. Some kids with autism get at home services for more than $250,000 per year. More troublingly, some non-approved schools such as Stephen Gaynor have impartial hearings built into the school DNA as a method of getting parents free $40,000+ educations funded by taxpayer money. Newer schools like the IDEAL School (yes, that's its name) have educational attorneys on their board of directors - and then get the parents to sue the Department of Education for reimbursement.

On the other hand, none of this would exist were it not for the intransigence of the NYC DOE in providing high-quality programs in public schools. If the DOE were to implement excellent special education classrooms then the attorney gravy train could be properly halted. That's a win-win-win solution: kids, taxpayers, and educators all get what they want - and deserve.

Good points Jack. School districts need to agressively train their teachers and staff so that students will make reasonable gains. Some schools are still under the impression that working with Low Incidence populations is babysitting or monitoring. There are rsearch proven instructional programs out there for children with MR, ASD and special education professionals need to know and use them in their classrooms.

Due to general education budget cuts many school districts have no choice but to cut programs such as: athletics, art, music and summer school. In addition, they have lowered the units needed to graduate from high school from 240 to 230 units. In essence our children are getting less of an education.

However, if a student is deemed special ed, there is no budget cuts for him/her. The red carpet gets rolled out and every request a parent of a special ed student makes is almost always granted. Why? Because of the ill written and ambiguous laws of “NO Child Left Behind”. Special ed students get many privileges, transportation, laptops, therapies etc.. while their general ed counter parts get their programs cut to fund these services.

California school districts shift more than a billion dollars a year out of their regular school budgets to pay for special education
One third of the educational budget goes to 10% of the students who are special ed.

I invite comments and debate regarding this issue. Visit my blog at www.whycantmychildbespecialed.com


I understand that impression of Special Ed. but it is incorrect on a few levels. First, NCLB did not mandate special ed. These federal mandates were already in place for decades and required what the family in this article was fighting for: Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Despite being federally mandated, Special Ed has never been equitably funded by the federal government. Currently, the federal investment is about half (most likely less) of what was originally planned for more than 3 decades ago, leaving individual districts to pick up the considerable slack. As such, districts struggle mightily to provide apropriate services, especially for severe needs children. There is no red carpet.

Bear in mind that the consequences of not providing FAPE to a child like Matthew condemns him to becoming a heavy burden to society for the rest of his adult life. Gaining critical self-help, communication and vocational skills will allow Matthew to become a productive member of society, at least in some measure.

Thanks for your explanation, Nikki. My experience of special education has never been one of a red carpet. The reality is, what parents of students with special needs want is pretty much what every parent wants--for their kids to learn and be productive. Absent evidence that this is actually happening, the perceived need for services tends to go up. Sometimes it helps, sometimes not. Sometimes nobody can tell because the service was implemented haphazardly or not at all--or because there is little attention paid to ongoing measures of learning. Personally I would trade the commitment of specific services to a commitment to do whatever it takes to move my child from point A to point B this year.

I agree with the previous post regarding the high cost of legal fees. Just do a search on the internet and you will find pages of law firms capitalizing on disputes between districts and parents. It is often a lose-lose situation for the student. Yes, it is true that some districts do not provide the proper supports to their special education teachers. Burnout rates are very high, creating less than excellent classroom learning experiences for our students. However, I also take issue with some of the special education parents who feel that their child should be served to the detriment of every other special needs child (or general education child for that matter). Bottom line, we need better administrative support and planning at the school district level and we need to restrict the amount a family can recover from the cost of a special needs child. Some special education students are really receiving caregiving services and not educational services. Perhaps this is another reason to support universal healthcare.

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  • sdc teach: I agree with the previous post regarding the high cost read more
  • Jason: That alert is from 2001. Is there anything more recent read more
  • Vikki Mahaffy: I worked as a special education teacher for 18 years read more
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  • Anonymous: Fully fund the RTI process. We are providing special education read more