Access refers to the degree to which a particular placement is financially and practically accessible to the student needing services. No placement type is completely accessible due to various factors including regulations, school capacity, cost, and admissions constraints. While public placements are free of charge, access is often limited by administrative or legislative consent. By law, parents of children with disabilities are included in all placement decisions regarding their child, but this does not guarantee that the choices of parents will be granted. Adverse financial and other incentives may interfere with sound placement decisions. When placement disputes arise, parents do not have the legal authority to veto the decision of public-school authorities. Instead, disputes are resolved through arbitration or litigation, which can be costly to families and schools alike.

Notes Nancy Lavelle, president of the Institute for the Redesign of Learning, student placements are often made arbitrarily and without regard to a student’s unique needs.118

The lines between special education, alternative education and corrections education are increasingly becoming blurred. For years, I have felt that it sometimes is like tossing a coin in terms of where a student in trouble will wind up. Will he or she be incarcerated, go to continuation high school or alternative schools, placed in a special program for dropouts or chemically dependent youth, or receive special-education services? Will the student receive day school or residential services? It would be nice if the treatment was designed for the specific youth. However, often the determination of placement is made on the basis of funding available, geography, openings in programs, and the tenacity of the parent, caregiver, advocate, lawyer or school-district official.

Access to public and nonpublic programs for students at-risk is particularly troublesome. Most public-school policies for at-risk students are remedial in nature. That is, the student must fall behind one to two academic years before he or she can be served. By then, the student may have dropped out, failed, or become too discouraged to advance academically. Students should not be forced to fail before they can receive alternative education.

Where appropriate, making parents and students, instead of public administrators, the gatekeepers for education programs may ensure greater access for students needing specialized services. Furthermore, it could lead to greater accountability for school performance as parents would have the authority to remove their child (and presumably the accompanying funds) if the parents believe the child has not benefited educationally.

If parents and students are the gatekeepers and have the authority to choose the education placement they believe is most suitable for their needs, the dilemma becomes one of funding. To what extent should parents have access to public funds to pay for the placements they choose? When public funds are involved, cost controls are desirable and necessary. Policies could be designed to enable parents and students to choose among financially neutral or lesser-cost placements. That is, if the cost of an alternative placement is equal to or less than the cost of the student’s current placement, then the student should be allowed to transfer with public funds following. If the parent wishes the child to receive additional services, beyond what is publicly provided, the parent should be allowed to supplement the educational cost of his or her child with private funds.

For those students whose families or guardians are unwilling or unable to participate in their child’s welfare, administrative involvement may continue to be necessary.