With back-to-school right around the corner, many parents are beginning to ask themselves what type of school is best for their children. This question is particularly important for parents with children that require special education services. While there is not a right or wrong choice for your child, it is important to know the legal requirements that each type of schooling system must meet for special needs students in order to make the most informed decision you can. Regardless of which school system you choose, one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to be your child’s advocate and get involved in their education.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services for those children. Under this Act, special education and related services must be provided by the public school system at no cost to the parent, meet the standards of the state, and be in conformity with the student’s individual education plan (IEP). Special needs include learning disabilities, such as autism, but it also includes gifted learners. Florida state law and IDEA both require school districts to provide special instruction and services to gifted students. IDEA also funds early intervention for children with recognizable disabilities to minimize the problem in developmental delay. Additionally, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, public schools cannot discriminate based on their disability, meaning they must accept all students who apply, including those with disabilities. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is also a major aspect of IDEA. To learn more about individualized education plans and how to navigate them, check out our previous blogs: Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan Eligibility in Florida & Individual Education Plan Enhanced: Our Top Five Tips. Although IDEA has been incredibly successful in improving the quality of education for this population, there are still continued challenges. Some of those challenges include poor assessments, limited training for teachers, large class sizes, and eligibility barriers that prevent students from receiving special education. This can sometimes cause parents to seek other options, such as private and charter schools.
While public schools are bound to a plethora of state and federal laws, the same cannot always be said about private schools. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004), which covers special education law, does not apply to individuals placed in private schools (including religious schools) by their parents. This does not automatically mean that private schools will not accommodate students with special education needs. In fact, many private schools will voluntarily follow a similar framework as public schools for academic accommodations; however, most will have a unique process for accommodations that is specific only to that school’s program. It is extremely important to discuss early on with the school principal or administrator about that process, and to receive that information in writing.
Depending on the amount of federal funding the school receives, if any, the school may be required to follow portions of Section 504, meaning the school cannot discriminate against a child with a disability for reasons related to the disability and might be responsible for providing modifications and accommodations. For example, most private schools are willing to provide some minor classroom accommodations (such as extended time for tests), but they are not required to do more. Because private schools are not bound to the same regulations and protections regarding special education as public schools, if an issue or disagreement does arise within your child’s private school, it may be more difficult to challenge that decision by way of legal action. This also means that unlike public schools, private schools can accept or reject any students they choose to. Private schools can be a phenomenal option if you have found that public schools are not meeting your child’s needs. While they are not obligated to meet the minimums of education law, some schools are tailored for students with ADHD and learning disabilities, and will voluntarily exceed the minimums required of public schools. This can make them a wonderful option for families who did not feel as though their children’s needs were met by the public school system. There is a third option that is becoming increasingly common: charter schools.
According to the Florida Department of Education, charter schools are among the fastest growing school choice options in Florida, with student enrollment now topping 341,900 students in the 2020-21 school year. While state laws often grant charter schools some freedom from meeting public education regulations, charter schools must follow all federal laws that apply to any other public school, including IDEA. Florida law relating to charter school education requires that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity of being selected for enrollment in a charter school (Section 1002.33). Because charter schools are still public schools, it is against the law for charter schools to discourage kids with disabilities from attending or applying. However, in reality, this legal regulation does not always necessarily work out in favor of special education students as some parents might hope. Note that all students do need to apply to attend charter schools, which often have very limited spots available, making it challenging to get in.
While there is no “one size fits all” solution to determining the best school system for your child, it is always important to take your child’s unique needs along with legal requirements into consideration. At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to find an environment that allows your child to reach their full potential where they feel comfortable and confident. If you have any questions at all, call us at 407.512.4394. When advocating for your child, you can have an attorney help you understand yours and your child’s rights, and to make sure nothing is getting overlooked when tailoring your child’s education to suit their needs best. We have experienced education law attorneys and staff that have worked hard to make their children’s, and their clients’ children’s special education experiences the best they can be. We are here to help you, and care deeply about this aspect of what we do as a full-service law firm.