Forgotten children. Troubled youth. Students with special needs. Whatever the euphemism, these are children who are not well served in conventional education settings. These are students who challenge the capabilities of schools and parents alike. Often they are difficult and costly to educate. Beyond academics, education can involve teaching behavior modification, independent living skills, or skills to help the student contend with a particular disability.

The private sector, including private schools, nonpublic schools, and homeschools, offers a wide variety of education programs for this population of students. Private-sector schools and programs exist to serve students with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. Other private-sector schools specialize in meeting the needs of at-risk students—teen parents, substance abusers, homeless youth, dropouts, or academically undirected youth. Still others provide education and treatment services to adjudicated juveniles serving time for delinquent or criminal behavior (see Figure 1).

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 relied on private providers for help.

Private schools may operate under contract with government agencies and receive public funding. (For purposes of this report, such schools are referred to as nonpublic schools. Nonpublic schools may be either for-profit or nonprofit organizations and can also enroll students on a private-tuition basis.) Many private schools for difficult-to-educate youth, however, including schools with a religious orientation and homeschools, are supported primarily by private funding. (See Table I.) A growing number of charter schools—autonomous public schools—specialize in serving at-risk students. Some charter schools for at-risk students are operated by private companies.

The private sector has proven an important and viable provider of education for difficult-to-educate students. In serving this diverse student population, the private sector has spawned a wide variety of schooling options to meet the needs of individual learners.

The purpose of this report is to describe the role of private institutions in educating difficult-to-educate students. Part II of the report analyzes the various arrangements in the context of public policy. It will discuss the extent to which each arrangement incorporates performance measures, financial accountability, and student access to services. Implications for school-choice policy are also addressed.