Some parents opt to place their children independent of government involvement. At least 43,795 students with disabilities attend special private schools at parent expense.21 These include private nonsectarian schools, private religious schools, or nonpublic schools (which sometimes enroll students on a private tuition basis in addition to students enrolled under public-agency contract).

As of 1989, the most recent year for which data is available, Catholic church organizations operated 195 private schools throughout the United States specializing in educating children with disabilities.22 Among them are the St. Lucy Day School in Pennsylvania for children with visual impairments; the Mary Immaculate School in Toledo, Ohio, which serves learning disabled and crack-affected children; and St. Coleman’s Home in New York for children with autism and emotional disturbance. (See Part III for Michigan examples.) Other religious denominations, including the Jews, Mennonites, Quakers, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians also operate private special-education schools.

Parents may choose a private school forgoing public funding when they feel the school better meets the needs of their child. "A lot more money doesn’t always mean you get what you want," says parent Sherry Quist. She enrolled her daughter in the Mercy Special Learning Center, a private Catholic school specializing in educating students with mental retardation. Says Quist:

We looked at all our options. Our public school was very cooperative, but this was the setting we chose. . . . What’s important to me is the setting. I know she’s not only being taught and protected, she’s also being loved. Here I know she’ll receive a hug if she needs it.23

Private schools may decline government support for several reasons. Some have a religious emphasis, which generally precludes public funding under current constitutional interpretations. (Private religious and secular schools can receive some public funding for compensatory education, curriculum and supplies, equipment, transportation, and health-related services. See Case Study 5.) Public funding can also bring with it additional regulations such as class-size limits, mandated student-teacher ratios, mandated admissions, personnel requirements, etc., which may interfere with the school’s particular instructional approach.

The Maplebrook School, a private, nonsectarian school serving low-intelligence, learning-disabled students, discontinued its contractual relationship with New York state in the 1970s. Says Maplebrook headmaster Roger Fazzone, "the state did not pay on time and it forced the school to enroll students who did not meet the school’s admission criteria." Now, says Fazzone, "Tuition bills get paid on time and we don’t worry about borrowing money to meet payroll. . . . We’re able to select the youngsters we feel we can serve."24

There has been a third unanticipated benefit of the policy change, says Fazzone. "We tend to attract a group of parents who take responsibility for their children’s education and don’t depend on the state. So many parents go through the process of trying to get the public schools to pay; they become antagonistic, blaming the state, blaming the system. Here, rather than blaming the state when their children aren’t learning, they take a more active part in designing their youngster’s education."

The annual cost per student at the Maplebrook School is $31,700, including room and board, compared to the $55,000 cost of New York’s state school for learning-disabled students, according to Fazzone.25 (Tuition at Maplebrook is actually $28,500 with the cost difference made up through fundraising.) Scholarships are available for low-income Maplebrook students.

Meaningful cost comparisons between publicly and privately funded programs can not be conducted because of a lack of comprehensive financial data about public-sector programs. For purposes of public policy and its implementation, information about the cost differences among various placement options would be useful.