On February 14, 2020, ISBE issued notice that it will no longer provide reimbursement for students placed at non-approved special education facilities, even if the placement is ordered by a hearing officer. In a brief memorandum to Illinois special education due process hearing officers and state directors of special education, ISBE announced the change, which is effective immediately. This change will have important impacts on Illinois public schools.

In Illinois, districts can receive reimbursement from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) for students placed at “approved” private day and residential schools. To be approved, the private school must meet the eligibility standards set out in Part 401 of the Illinois Administrative Code. These requirements were amended in March 2018, and the stricter rules meant that many residential schools that had previously been approved no longer were. Many districts found it difficult to place students in appropriate and approved residential placements given the decrease in availability.

In guidance issued in January 2019, ISBE advised that although state law and rules denied reimbursement for placements in nonapproved special education facilities by school district IEP teams, if a hearing officer ordered such a placement following a unilateral placement by the student’s parents that occurred prior to July 1, 2018, ISBE would provide reimbursement. In practice, ISBE continued to provide reimbursement when hearing officers awarded placement in a nonapproved facility even if the placement was initiated after July 1, 2018.

The recent notice signifies a course reversal by ISBE on these payments. School leaders should be aware of this change when considering residential placements by IEP teams as well as when responding to unilateral placements by parents. The continued limited supply of approved residential facilities, and the risks of proceeding to hearing over a nonapproved unilateral placement given ISBE’s new position, leave districts in a difficult position when seeking to place students with the most significant needs.