Some alternative schools for at-risk students operate as private charities or on a parent-pay basis and receive little or no public funding. One example is Father Flanagan’s Boys Home in Boys Town, Nebraska—serving neglected and delinquent youth. Boys Town receives approximately 60 percent of its revenues from private sources, despite the fact that most of its referrals come from public agencies. (See case study 5.)

To keep costs down, Sobriety High is located in a sparsely furnished suite of classrooms in a suburban business park. There is no gym, no chemistry lab, and no support staff. "We don't have a janitor; the kids clean the school and make the rules."

Parents of troubled youth sometimes seek independent placements. Wilderness camps, ranches, college-prep schools, and alternative schools are often a parent’s only recourse for those youth for whom other public or nonpublic school placements have failed. Lon Woodbury is an education placement consultant who helps parents locate a school or program that best meets the needs of their child. Says Woodbury, "Most of these programs were founded by someone who looked around trying to help these kids and there was nothing for them. . . . So they took a risk, put up their own money and went into the school business."46

States are involved in accrediting and making sure schools meet minimum health and safety standards. But most oversight comes from parents who select the school and are responsible for tuition and residential fees. Woodbury estimates the cost of a quality residential program for troubled youth averages $2,500 a month. Scholarships and private insurance may pay some of that amount.

Unlike special education, where parents have successfully litigated to have the government pay the full cost of a private placement made by the parent, at-risk students are not guaranteed by federal law a "free and appropriate" education. Generally, parents cannot place their at-risk child in a private school and then expect reimbursement from the public schools. While tuition costs can pose a barrier to low-income families, Woodbury notes that the absence of government funding has some advantages. Says Woodbury, "He who pays the piper calls the tune. If the parent pays, they can demand and get action."47