How the Private Sector Serves Children with Special Needs

Published January 1, 1997

Students with disabilities. At-risk students. Adjudicated youth. These are students that challenge the capabilities of schools and parents alike. When public schools are unable to serve these students, they rely on private-sector providers to educate students under contract with government agencies. The private sector, including private schools, nonpublic schools, and home schools, offers a wide variety of education programs for this population of students.

Conventional public schools enroll the vast majority of difficult-to-educate students. Contrary to a widely held perception, however, public schools do not accept everyone. Those students whom the public schools cannot or will not enroll are often sent, at public expense, to private schools with expertise in educating a certain type of student. Public schools cannot be expected to teach every child and teach all of them well. Where public schools lack specialization, they have invited private providers to educate special-needs students.

Special Education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, just over 2 percent of the nation’s special education population, or 100,700 students, attend private schools and nonpublic schools at public expense. Nonpublic schools enroll some of the most demanding students. Students with Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED) account for 40 percent of the students enrolled in nonpublic schools.

Education for Students At-Risk. “At-risk” is a broadly defined category which can include dropouts, homeless youth, teen parents, abused or neglected children, students with substance abuse problems, or emotionally troubled youth. Districts in at least 17 states contract with private alternative schools to serve at-risk students.

Corrections Education. Roughly 35,000 adjudicated juveniles are housed in 2,000 privately operated facilities, including training centers, ranches, shelters, halfway houses, and group homes. Since compulsory education laws also apply to incarcerated youth, private (as well as public) operators must provide academic instruction. Many facilities also provide related services such as behavior modification, counseling, and vocational training.

Private providers are well equipped to meet the special needs of difficult-to-educate students. Typically, they have developed expertise in serving a specific type of student. The private sector also offers a variety of learning environments, including residential schools, day schools, charter schools, independent study programs, religious schools, and home schools. Some private schools fully include students with disabilities in the regular classroom.

Janet R. Beales directs the Education Studies Program for the Reason Foundation. She is the author of “Meeting the Challenge: How the Private Sector Serves Difficult to Educate Students.