Forgotten children. Troubled youth. Learning disabled. Students with special needs. Whatever the euphemism, these are children who are often not well served in the conventional public school setting. At the same time, many people think that these students cannot be served well by the private sector either, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is time to lay to rest the myth that private schools are elitist institutions that just "skim the cream" and leave all the toughest kids to the public schools.

The private sector, including private sectarian schools, religious schools, nonpublic agencies, and home schools, offers a wide variety of education programs for this difficult-to-educate population. When public schools or agencies cannot serve a particular student, they sometimes contract with a private sector group to do the job. The Directory for Exceptional Children lists roughly 3,000 special education schools and facilities in the private sector nationwide. Their costs of educating a student vary widely, depending in large part on the nature of the disability category served and whether or not the costs of medical care and transportation are included.


It is time to lay to rest the myth that private schools are elitist institutions that just “skim the cream” and leave all the toughest kids to the public schools.


Examples include Sobriety High in Edina, Minnesota, which educates ninth- through twelfth-grade students who are recovering from chemical dependency. The famed Boys Town, based in Nebraska, directly cares for more than 27,000 boys and girls annually in fourteen states and the District of Columbia. The Helicon Shelter Education Program, a division of Children’s Comprehensive Services, provides certified teachers, materials, curricula, and academic recordkeeping on-site at 27 emergency foster care shelters throughout Tennessee.

According to a study from the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, about half of the nation’s children who suffer from traumatic brain injuries are placed in private settings. Students with Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED) account for 40% of the disabled students enrolled in nonpublic schools. Private sector institutions are providing education for the mentally retarded, the autistic, the deaf and blind, and those with orthopedic impairments as well. Some of these institutions decline government support, but many do not.

Catholic church organizations alone operate nearly 200 schools throughout the United States specializing in educating disabled children. Among them are the St. Lucy Day School in Pennsylvania for children with visual impairments; the Mary Immaculate School in Toledo, Ohio, which serves the learning disabled and children affected by crack cocaine; and St. Coleman’s Home in New York for children with autism and emotional disturbance. According to Tom Bushnell, president and director of the National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network, some 30,000 American children with disabilities are homeschooled. Says Bushnell, who personally homeschools a blind daughter, a child with Downs syndrome, and a child with cerebral palsy, "Sometimes it’s easier to do it yourself than fight. When you have to go to an IEP [Individualized Education Plan] meeting and face a multi-disciplinary team of six or eight professionals, it’s stressful. It’s you against the world. Parents get tired of fighting."

And, says Bushnell, parents sometimes worry that the adversarial relationship with the public schools will affect the quality of care the schools give their child. "Would you want someone who you had to fight in an IEP meeting to put a catheter into your child?"

In Michigan, private sector help for difficult-to-educate children is a story crying to be told. A report from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is now helping to tell it. For example, the Manor Foundation in Jonesville is both a residential school and a treatment facility that admits children with problems that include pervasive development disorder, early infantile autism, schizophrenia, impaired hearing, and even the trauma of sexual abuse.

Starr Commonwealth, an Albion-based organization with six Michigan sites, has been serving children and families since 1913 as a private sector alternative for violent, troubled, and dispossessed children. It raised more than $15 million from private sources in a recent year.

St. Peter’s Home for Boys in Detroit, operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, provides residential care and schooling for boys between ages eleven and nineteen who require placement outside of their homes. The Home’s mission is deeply rooted in an emphasis on the dignity of each individual that arises out of explicit ethical standards.

Our Lady of Providence Center in Northville admits mild, moderate, and severe cases of developmentally disabled girls over the age of ten and women under forty in its residential program and school. Its acclaimed programs that teach self-help and work skills alongside spiritual values have benefited hundreds since 1957.

Difficult-to-educate students present multiple challenges to educators and policymakers. The public schools serve the majority of these students, but they do not educate everyone. Often in partnership with public schools and public agencies, but sometimes operating entirely on their own through exclusively private support, nonpublic schools and organizations are helping great numbers of students with special needs. As Michigan citizens continue to debate the direction of educational reform, they should not sell short the achievements of these private institutions.