Executive Summary

Students with disabilities. At-risk students. Adjudicated youth. These are students who 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 homeschools, 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 can not or will not enroll are often sent, at public expense, to private schools with expertise in educating a certain type of student. Public schools can not 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 two 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 account for 40 percent of the students enrolled in nonpublic schools.

Education for At-Risk Students. 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. At least seven states have formal, legislated programs enabling public schools to contract with nonpublic 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 homeschools. Some private schools fully include students with disabilities in the regular classroom.

In addition to describing the role of private institutions in educating difficult-to-educate students, this report incorporates case studies and analyzes the various institutional arrangements in the context of performance measures, financial accountability, and student access to services. Six Michigan case studies are presented.

Policy recommendations include

  • enhancing provider accountability by measuring student performance and linking results to funding;

  • expanding public and private options for students;

  • and eliminating unnecessary regulations.

Implications for school-choice policy are also discussed.

Current debates over public school system reforms should be informed by an understanding of the capabilities of nongovernment or alternative schools. State officials, school administrators, teachers, and parents should not sell short the achievements of private institutions.

Estimated Number of Private-Sector
Schools and Facilities Serving
Students in the United States

Special Education 3,000
Homeschools 4,100
Corrections Education 2,000
At-Risk Education Not Available