Editor’s Note: The state investigation described in this
article has since concluded and found that no violation has occurred. The
findings were reported shortly before deadline; details were not available.
In Massachusetts, the parents of a special education student can
visit a state Web site and scroll through a list of private schools offering
special education programs. The state will pay for special needs students to
attend those schools if parents and educators agree that is the best place for
In Michigan there is no such list. Cases in which a student with
special needs attends a private school or program, paid for with public money,
are few and far between. Karen Barnhart, a parent from Beverly Hills, Mich.,
believes the cases occur so rarely that the situation constitutes a violation of
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that guarantees
all children with disabilities a "free and appropriate public education."
Barnhart filed a complaint to that effect with the Michigan
Department of Education in September, signed by 64 other parents. The complaint
alleged that most public school districts routinely refuse to consider paying
for private schools as an option for special education students, even though the
federal law allows it. Most parents aren’t aware the option exists, Barnhart
alleges. Those who want to send their child to a private school at public
expense typically face a lengthy, expensive hearing process pitting them against
their assigned school district.
But others in the special education field in Michigan disagree,
saying that the reason there are so few private placements is that there is
little need for them. Public school districts here have developed their own
comprehensive services, unlike other states that rely on private schools, they
The Michigan Department of Education is investigating Barnhart’s
complaint and declined comment in the interim. The department does have a
written policy on the matter. Titled "Public Agency Placement of Students with
Disabilities in Private Schools," it states that if a student is placed in a
private facility in order to receive an appropriate education, then that
education will be at no cost to the parents. In practice, however, Barnhart
alleges that there is a pattern of school districts refusing to consider such
placements even when parents request them.
Many of the 64 parents who signed Barnhart’s complaint said they
either agreed reluctantly to educational programs provided by their public
school districts or are paying for what they believe are better services from
private sources at their own expense.
That’s what Meath and Tere Ramos Dunne did for several years,
until they decided to leave the state altogether.
The Dunnes were living in China, on assignment with General
Motors Corp., when they realized that their 2-year-old daughter, Katherine, was
not developing language skills to match her age. When testing showed serious
"global delays," the couple moved back to Michigan and enrolled her in an early
intervention program in their assigned public school system. Simultaneously,
they enrolled her in a private autism program for part of the day at their own
Today, however, they live in Massachusetts, where the state pays
for their daughter to attend The Northeast Center for Children near Boston. The
center is a private, nonprofit autism education center. The Dunnes moved
primarily because they believe the school offers one of the best autism
education programs in the country, based on an approach called applied
behavioral analysis, Tere Ramos Dunne told Michigan Education Report in a
telephone interview. It came as a relief to them that their local district
agreed to pay the annual tuition of approximately $80,000.
Private placement is more common in Massachusetts than Michigan,
she said. "You can ask about it and it’s nothing the school system is so shocked
In Michigan, parents who disagree with their local school
districts about the best educational plan for their children have the right to
file a complaint and take the matter to a hearing. But the process takes time
and money, Barnhart said. In her case, an attorney told her, "You’ll never win.
It will cost you $40,000 to $50,000 to go to due process." She chose instead to
enroll her son in a private school and pay the tuition herself.
Many parents can’t afford either option, Barnhart said, and
accept what their district offers. "It’s pretty much take it or leave it."
Except for cases in which a student has severe needs and lives
year-round in a treatment facility, Barnhart said her review of state records
showed only three cases in which Michigan paid for special needs students to
receive private services in the past seven years.
Others in special education say they are not surprised at that
number, and that the reason so few special education students attend private
schools in Michigan is that there is not much need.
"When districts are pressed to look for private schools, it is
usually because a child needs 24-hour residential placement," said Lyn Beekman
of Special Education Solutions, a dispute resolution and training center.
Beekman has worked in special education in Michigan for 30 years, the last 10 as
a mediator, arbitrator and compliance investigator. "When there’s a need, it
should be doggone rare."
Michigan special education law, which Beekman helped develop,
was intended to force public school districts to create programs to serve
special education students, he said, a reversal of the days when special needs
children were not even required to attend school.
"We wanted to force public schools to do what they should do,"
he said. When federal special education law was enacted in 1975, it allowed
districts to either provide services themselves or pay for private services on
behalf of students. Some states use the private option frequently, but Michigan
schools provide their own services almost entirely, Beekman said.
A handful of states — Florida, Utah, Arizona and Ohio — offer
voucher or scholarship programs for children with special needs. In Florida, the
McKay Scholarship Program provides scholarships for students with disabilities
to attend the public or private school of their choice. As of the 2005-2006
school year, the program served 17,300 students with an average grant amount of
The Wayne Regional Educational Services Agency believes it is
the public school system’s job to provide appropriate programs for all special
needs students, according to Kevin Magin, director of special education. Wayne
RESA is the largest of the state’s intermediate school districts, coordinating
special education services for approximately 48,000 students.
"Your local district has a requirement to provide free,
appropriate public education," he said. If a parent requested private placement,
"I would say to my district, ‘You’re failing to do your job. What can we do to
meet this need?’"
Barnhart and other special education parents disagree, saying
that private placement should not be a last resort, but one considered alongside
a public district’s own programs. Information about private placement at public
expense should be readily available to parents, they said.
Paying for a private school is part of the issue, Beekman said,
especially if the cost is more than a public school district would spend on the
child in its own programs.
"That doesn’t mean lack of money should shortchange a child," he
said, but in practice, districts are unlikely to agree to private placement if
they offer a comparable program of their own.
One question is whether the Michigan Constitution prohibits
paying for special needs students to attend private schools. The constitution
states that no public money may ever be paid "to aid or maintain" any private
However, Michigan school districts may pay for private school
placement of special education students when necessary, according to a letter
from the Office of Special Education Services to a Michigan legislator. Barnhart
provided a copy of the letter to Michigan Education Report. The letter says that
the Michigan Department of Education takes the position that a school district
may use federal funds — but not state or local —– as a way to pay for private
Nationwide, the number of special education students placed in
private schools at public expense has risen steadily, from about 52,012 pupils
in 1996 to 71,082 in 2005, according to the federal Department of Education.
Overall, however, the number of such placements remains relatively small — just
1.1 percent of the country’s 6.1 million special education students.