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Possibilities: A Financial Resource for Parents of Children with Disabilities

Planning and Funding Your Child’s Education — Elementary and Secondary School

It is the change of routine, supports, and educators as your child transitions from grade to grade that can present some of the greatest challenges. Positive transition experiences through the elementary and secondary school years may provide your child with the right mix of academic achievement and self-esteem for success.

As provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), parents bear no tuition expense to send their children through the public education system from kindergarten to senior year in high school. Private schools charge tuition and some fees. Both the public and private education systems provide traditional classroom education as well as specialized programs that support your child’s disability learning and developmental needs.

Types of Schools

Your community may provide educational options beyond those provided by your local public school. The alternative schools funded with public monies listed below are required to to offer special educational services, and may also have an approach that works more effectively with your child's learning style.

Magnet Schools

These schools provide a particular focus on a type of coursework, such as science, technology, or fine arts. Coursework in magnet schools is tied to state standards and overseen by the public school distinct.

Charter Schools

These schools are tailored to meet the specific needs of a geographic area or student body. Charter schools are funded by the public education system but overseen by a school board elected by parents, teachers, and school staff. This board, along with input from community members, determines how the school will teach a standards based curriculum to students. Students must still meet state standards to graduate.

Online Schools

Also known as distance learning schools, online schools offer coursework through the Internet. Licensed teachers provide online instruction that must meet state standards. Your child might find that learning through online coursework is more comforting and suitable to his or her learning style. For example, coursework can be presented in video and audio formats. If you think your child might be more successful learning online than through the face-to-face method used at traditional schools, discuss this option with your child's IEP team.

The coursework and testing provided by publicly-funded online schools must be accessible to students with disabilities, and specific accommodations outlined in a student IEP must be provided.

Alternative Schools

The coursework for public and private alternative schools is designed to help students perform better—students who haven’t been able to improve their performance in traditional school environments.

Examples of programs offered at alternative schools include:

  • Emotional growth programs
  • Programs for youth at risk (of dropping out)
  • Special-needs programs
  • Therapeutic wilderness programs

(See Dore Frances, IEC, founder of Horizon Family Solutions, LLC. “What is an "Alternative School"? Internet Special Education Resources (ISER). Retrieved from on September 12, 2009.)

Alternative schools that operate within the public school structure are offered at no expense to families. Private alternative schools may charge a monthly tuition.

Speak with a representative at your disability-specific organization or network at your local Parent Center for information about alternative schools that can serve your child. Remember to discuss the matter with your child's IEP team.

Private Schools

Private schools with coursework designed around specific disabilities exist in many states. Families are required to pay tuition. Some schools offer scholarships or financial aid. Speak with a representative at your disability-specific organization for information about private schools that can serve your child. Also, consult your IEP team.

The National Association of Private Special Education Centers (NAPSEC) represents private educational institutions serving individuals with disabilities. NAPSEC has information about these private schools located across the country, and information on how to apply for financial assistance as well. To find out if your state has private schools that can serve your child, contact NAPSEC:
Call 1-202-434-8225
601 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Suite 900 - South Building
Washington, DC 20004

A Public or Private School of Your Choice

Some states offer school choice programs open to children with and without disabilities. Under these programs, you aren’t limited to the public school system—you choose which education program you’d like to send your child to. Types of school choice programs include vouchers, charter schools, and online education. Not all states offer school choice programs.

Some of these school choice programs are called Tax-Credit Scholarship Programs. If you qualify for the tax credit, you would take it when you file your state income tax. Not all states allow this credit, which can offset additional expenses, such as books, school supplies, and transportation that you normally wouldn’t have to pay for if your child attended your local public school. In other school choice programs, individuals or companies offer scholarships directly to the student. To find out if your state offers school choice programs for children with disabilities, contact The Foundation for Educational Choice.
Call 317-681-0745
The Foundation for Educational Choice
111 Monument Circle Suite 2650
Indianapolis, IN 46204

Transition Planning — Guiding Your Child through Elementary School, Middle School, and High School

Transitions—changes in routines—are a part of life. They occur when you get a new job, get married, start a business, have children, and retire. Changes to routine bring stress. For your child with special needs, they might bring on stress difficult to bear. Your child may experience many changes in routine over time, but three significant ones addressed by transition planning occur as your child moves from:

  • Early childhood intervention to elementary school
  • Elementary school to middle school
  • Middle school to high school

From your child’s early intervention program through high school graduation, you will attend many meetings with education professionals to create transition plans that help your child adjust to these significant changes in environment, academic expectations, and relationships. Transition services at the high school level are intended to prepare youth to for further education, to reach their career goals, and to actively participate in their community, and are based on your child’s strengths, needs, and vision for the future. They include:

  • Instruction
  • Community participation
  • Developing employment skills
  • Developing daily living skills
  • Prepare for post-secondary education

Your child can become part of transition planning at any time, both formally at school and informally during discussions about it at home. By encouraging your child’s involvement in transition planning early on, he or she can get a jump on developing self-advocacy and self-determination skills. When your child turns 16 years of age, public schools must invite students to attend meetings and, by law, make transition planning part of your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The ultimate goal of transition planning is to provide your child with choices that will lead him or her to a productive, fulfilling, and independent adult life, to the greatest extent possible. 

Transition Planning — Elementary School

Making your child’s experiences in elementary school as positive as possible might ease change-related stress. Positive school experiences will also provide your child with a strong foundation for overall school success. Here are some things you can to do help create positive school experiences for your child in elementary school.  

  • Develop a positive and productive relationship with school staff and teachers.
  • Stay connected to your child’s progress in school; try to know when the time is right to push, or the time to let your child just be.
  • Expect the best. Your child may become inspired to rise to it.
  • Take care that your child has accommodations that will best support their academic and developmental achievement. Proper accommodations will also ensure your child’s knowledge is accurately measured.

(see Laura Ann Oliver, Michelle Detweiler, Karra Barber. “Tips for Transitioning into Elementary School.” . Retrieved from on September 11, 2010, and “High expectations, appropriate testing accommodations can benefit your child.” Pacesetter—Summer 2010. PACER Center. )

Transition Planning — Middle School and High School: Creating a Path to Self-Advocacy

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that your child’s IEP team assemble a formal transition plan when he or she turns 16. The transition plan includes what instruction, skills, services, and accommodations your child needs to accomplish personal, academic, vocational, and career goals after graduating from high school. 

Letting Go

By engaging your child early on in decision-making for a variety of life situations—vacations, purchases, accommodations, medical care, his or her IEP — you help ensure that by the time your child reaches the age of majority, he or she will be making decisions that improve the well-being of his or her life. Of course you’ll be there to provide support and guidance as you always have, but by gently letting go of your decision-making authority and allowing your child the opportunity to make decisions, your child gets to learn the value of making informed decisions (or not!). Some of life's most lasting lessons are learned from making mistakes.

Creating a Vision for the Future

Upon turning 16, your child will need to communicate a vision for the future to his or her IEP team. This vision will help form the basis of your child’s transition plan for the remainder of high school and beyond. To help your child develop a vision for the future, the IEP team may ask your child questions similar to these:

  • What skills do you think are your best?
  • What skills do you think need some improvement?
  • What do you want to do after you graduate from high school?
  • Where do you want to live?
  • Do you want to live alone or with roommates?
  • Do you know what accommodations you’ll need to live independently?
  • What kind of work would you like to do?
  • Do you know how much additional education that would require?
  • What are some of your dreams outside of your employment, such as travel, friendships, or community involvement?

Your child’s answers to these questions help define what supports and skills your child needs for a successful and fulfilling life beyond high school. Encouraging your child to begin creating a vision for the future upon entering the 8th grade might ease transitions into high school and then beyond.

The more he or she participates in transition planning, the more likely your child’s expectations of the future will be met. The more likely, too, your child will have opportunities to gain experience in making decisions and taking action. For example, an IEP specifying that your child spend time making trips to and from a job or post-secondary school using public transportation may demonstrate to your child what skills he or she needs to develop to confidently use public transportation.

What You Need to Know — The Age of Majority

We know from our own experiences that life beyond high school is quite different. Legally, the biggest differentiator is that when your child reaches the age of 18, he or she reaches the age of majority in most states. Likely, this will be a liberating time for your child. It’s also a time your child becomes responsible for making his or her own informed decisions in all areas of life, including the IEP. In order for your child to remain eligible for the transition services that are part of his or her IEP, your child must stay in school through graduation.

Age of Majority

In the PACER Parent Brief, “Age of Majority,” the risk in transferring to your child the decision-making rights over Individual Education Plans (IEPs) is conveyed with this question: Will your child decide to drop out of high school or accept a quick diploma and become ineligible for much-needed transition services?Keeping your child legally eligible for transition services should be part of your estate plan because transition services can play a big role in moving your child toward a fulfilling and independent life beyond high school. To learn more about your child’s responsibilities upon reaching the age of majority and how to help your child stay on-track for high school graduation and decision-making success, request a copy of the PACER Parent Brief, “Age of Majority”:
Call 1-800-537-2237
Visit and search on the name of the publication
PACER Center, Inc.
8161 Normandale Blvd.
Bloomington, MN 55437

Legal Rights 

When students reach the age of majority and are deemed competent, they have the legal right to make their own decisions about their IEP. When your child acquires this right, he or she becomes responsible for:

  • Attending IEP meetings
  • If necessary, approving (or consenting to) re-evaluations and changes in placement
  • Requesting mediation or a legal hearing to resolve disputes over IEPs, re-evaluations, and placement

Speak with your child’s IEP team to find out what your state’s laws are around the age of majority.

How to Make the Most of the IEP and Transition Plan — The Path Toward High School Graduation and Beyond

Here are some ideas you can share with your child on how to make the most of his or her IEP transition plan (see “College or Training Programs: How to Decide.” PACER Center Action Information Sheets. PACER Center. 2006.).  Each action item listed below might help your child further develop a vision for the future and focus on specific goals.

  • Take an evening or weekend course at a post-secondary school to get the feel for getting there and back, managing time, and a new learning environment.
  • Take high school courses that will help improve eligibility for post-secondary programs. Examples include foreign languages, computer programming, and advanced math and science.
  • Look for internships, part-time jobs, or volunteer work in the community.
  • Enroll in pre-college courses specifically designed for high school students the summer before or after the senior year.
  • Work on communication skills, such as writing, speaking, and presenting. These are practical skills to have and can create opportunities in any endeavor.
  • Research and apply for financial aid (scholarships, grants, and loans).

Know the Differences between High School and Post-Secondary School

Your child’s post-secondary school options include:

  • One- or two-year programs offered by vocational schools and community colleges.
  • Four-year programs offered by colleges and universities. 

If your child would like to pursue post-secondary education, you can help your child gain greater confidence of what lies ahead by knowing the differences between high school and post-secondary educational experiences.

In a nutshell, while your child attends public school, his or her IEP team determines the individual support and services your child needs for school success. When your child attends post-secondary school, he or she becomes responsible for requesting supports and services needed to succeed.

Here are additional differences between high school and post-secondary school: 

High School Area Post-Secondary Education
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), your child is entitled to a free and appropriate education (FAPE). Cost Your child must demonstrate eligibility for a post-secondary education.
Often you will advocate for the most appropriate IEP for your child by keeping in close contact with your child’s teachers. Your child’s IEP is created by a team of people who provide supports and accommodations so your child can achieve school success. Supports & Accommodations There is no IEP. Your child must be his or her own self-advocate and ask for supports and accommodations necessary to achieve school success. Many post-secondary education facilities have a Disabilities Support Services (DSS) to handle these requests.
You have access to all information contained in your child’s IEP, and to his or her teachers as well. Access to Academic Information Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), you may have limited access to information contained in your child’s academic records, and to their professors as well. FERPA provides your child the right to limit how his or her school records are distributed.
Teachers adapt all coursework to your child’s needs and are usually available after class to help students. Changes to your child’s coursework are made during mandatory IEP meetings. Coursework Teachers are trained in a specific area of coursework not adapted for students with special needs. The syllabus (academic areas covered during a course) is set and does not change. Your child must ask for help, usually during the teacher’s office hours and possibly by appointment.
You often provide structures at home to help ensure academic success, such as set hours to complete homework and go to bed. The school provides a set routine for the start and end of school, classes, and after-school activities. Time Management Your child is completely responsible for his or her own time. Your child has to figure out transportation to and from school, where classes are located, what courses are required, the course syllabus, what to do in between classes, when to study, how long it takes to learn certain things, and how long it takes to get homework done.
Your child’s education rights are legally protected under IDEA and FAPE. These laws are about helping your child achieve success in school.  Legal  Your child’s civil rights are protected under the anti-discrimination laws of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These laws are about creating access to public places and services so individuals with disabilities can participate in various activities. 

Source: Think College! Retrieved from on August 10, 2010.

What You Need to Know — It Pays to Learn

Even though individuals without disabilities tend to earn more than individuals who don’t, the numbers tell it all—the more you learn, the more you earn. The table below compares median incomes of individuals with and without disabilities by level of education attained. While viewing this information, keep in mind that the actual income attained by any individual with disabilities may be influenced by one’s:

  • Ability to attain a desired productivity level required by certain jobs
  • Attainment of marketable skills

Also keep in mind the economic health of a region, the overall job market, employment rate, and industries in your area.

Median* Income by Educational Attainment and Disability Status for Full-time, Full-Year Workers**

  Without a Disability With a Disability
Less than a high school diploma $25,459 $24,441
High school diploma $32,588 $30,551
Some college $39,714 $35,643
Bachelor’s degree or higher  $61,103  $50,919* 

*Median means “the middle”; for example if you made a list of nine people’s income from lowest to highest, the median income would be the income of the fifth, or “middle,” person.

** Non-institutionalized population, ages 21-64. Source: Analysis of the 2008 American Community Survey (ACS) data, William Erickson, Employment and Disability Institute, Cornell University

A college graduate with a disability can expect to earn $20,000 more per year than someone with just a high school diploma, and about $29,000 more than someone who didn’t earn one. The median annual income for individuals with disabilities in 2008, the most up-to-date data available at the time of this publication’s writing, is $35,600 (see U.S. Census Bureau. 2008. American Community Survey (ACS).

High School Graduation Rates for Students with Disabilities

Based on the latest data available on high school graduation rates for students with disabilities—the 2005–2006 school year—the average graduation rate for students with disabilities in 29 states and the District of Columbia is 57 percent (see Julia Gwynne, Joy Lesnick, Holly M. Hart, Elaine M. Allensworth. What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools: A Focus on Students with Disabilities. Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. December 2009.). 

What Can I Do to Improve My Child’s Chances of Graduating from High School?

Students with disabilities who stay on-track with their courses during their freshman year of high school have higher graduation rates than their peers who become passive about their education. The exception is students with behavioral or emotional disabilities, suggesting that other supports are necessary to improve their graduation rates (see Julia Gwynne, Joy Lesnick, Holly M. Hart, Elaine M. Allensworth. What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools: A Focus on Students with Disabilities. Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. December 2009).  

Just by getting and staying involved in your child’s coursework and activities, he or she has a better chance of doing well in school, and that includes graduating from high school. The three key areas that will increase your child’s chances of graduating from high school are (see Julia Gwynne, Joy Lesnick, Holly M. Hart, Elaine M. Allensworth. What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools: A Focus on Students with Disabilities. Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. December 2009):

  • Regularly attending school
  • Passing all coursework
  • Improving grades

You can help in these areas by:


The teen-age years are when your child becomes more interested in looking beyond boundaries you might have set for his or her well-being. That curiosity might result in your child not communicating with you as openly as you’d like. For example, your child might not bring home school notices about meetings he or she would rather you not attend. Try to encourage communication by asking open-ended questions—questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no. An example: “What school meetings have been announced?” Or you can simply ask “Did you receive any school notices you might have misplaced or forgotten to bring home?”

Helping with Homework and Setting Boundaries

Even if you don’t have a lot of knowledge in your child’s coursework, you can help your child regularly complete homework.

  • Set a regular time and place to do homework.
  • Help provide access to learning resources such as the Internet, calculators, a librarian, and a friend or family member knowledgeable in a certain area.

Encouraging Your Child to Participate in Developing Individual Education Plans (IEPs)

The sooner you encourage your child to create a vision of the future, the greater the chances of your child’s success during high school. Consider involving your child in IEP development when he or she enters the eighth grade. That way, your child has more time to gain a deeper awareness of what it takes to turn dreams and goals into realities. Participating in IEPs early on will also help develop your child’s decision-making skills and provide the time to test and improve them.

Encouraging Your Child to Take Standardized Tests

Many post-secondary schools require pre-college test scores, such as the ACT (formerly known American College Testing) and SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), to be considered eligible for admission. By encouraging your child to take these standardized tests, new academic opportunities may become available. Students with disabilities may request testing accommodations that will allow them to demonstrate what they know without being limited by their disability. For example, a student with cerebral palsy may need extra time or use assistive technology to show what they know. 

Joining School Committees and Networking with Parents

You’ll stay in-the-know about school activities and potential problem areas your child might be facing by connecting with your child’s teachers and parents of your child’s classmates. 

Building Positive Relationships with Teachers

On occasion, you and your child’s teachers may disagree on the direction of your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). Because your child might behave differently in school than at home, what you clearly see as an ability of your child might not be seen by your child’s teachers. Should conflict around IEPs arise, present in positive ways stories or “evidence” of your child’s abilities, and discuss what supports the school might provide to replicate that ability during school with the teacher and the child's IEP team.

Transition Planning — Resources

Center for Early Literacy Learning (CELL)

The Center for Early Literacy Learning (CELL) guides parents to create building blocks of literacy for their children. Encouraging parents to begin engaging their children in literacy activities as early as possible, CELL offers video, audio, and library resources for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Developing your child’s literacy skills early on may provide later payoffs. The self-esteem your child gains through strong literacy skills can help ease transitions through early childhood education, elementary school, middle school, and high school. To find out what resources you can use to begin building your child’s literacy, contact the Center for Early Literacy Learning:
Call 1-800-824-1182 
Orelena Hawks Puckett Institute — Morganton, NC Office
128 South Sterling Street
PO Box 2277
Morganton, NC 28655

PACER’s National Parent Center on Transition and Employment (NPCTE)

This PACER program provides information to help parents guide youth with disabilities through their life’s transitions: in and out of middle school, and high school; and on to rehabilitation, post-secondary education, jobs, and careers.

Through publications, training programs, and special events and workshops, PACER provides many resources that strengthen your child’s ability to achieve education, employment, and independent living goals.

The NPCTE Web resources are available to all. Visit .

PACER’s Simon Technology Center

In a collaborative effort with parents, professionals, and consumers, PACER’s Simon Technology Center (STC) provides publications, training programs, technology consultations, and workshops on assistive technology (AT) to help Minnesota families and children with special needs achieve greater independence in school and work.

Although this is a Minnesota program, the STC’s web resources are available to all. Visit .

Federally Funded Resources

National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center .

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET) .

Funding Your Child’s Education — Elementary and Secondary School

Because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives your child the right to attend public school for free, during your child’s years in kindergarten through the completion of high school you bear no public education tuition expense. The public education system is extensive and well-established throughout the United States. 

Your community may offer private education choices that include special needs programs and coursework. Private schools typically charge tuition. 

Financing Options

By working with your local Parent Center and disability-specific organization, you may be able to find out financing options for private schools in your area. Scholarships and grants are available for some private elementary and secondary schools. They are usually based on merit (academic achievement or community service) and financial need. You don’t have to pay scholarships and grants back. 

FinAid! provides information on financing options for private elementary and secondary education. Contact FinAid! to get the specifics:
Call 1-724-538-4500
Visit (click “Other Types of Aid” and look for the link: “Aid for Elementary and Secondary School”)
FinAid Page, LLCPO
Box 2056
Cranberry Township, PA

The National Association of Private Special Education Centers (NAPSEC) has information about financial aid opportunities offered by private schools serving students with disabilities. To contact NAPSEC:
Call 1-202-434-8225
601 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Suite 900 - South Building
Washington, DC 20004

Next Page: Planning and Funding Your Child’s Education — Post-Secondary Schools