NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Private Schools And The Disabled

February 9, 1999

One of the most common arguments against school choice is that private schools would take only the easiest students to teach, leaving the neediest students behind to suffer neglect in crumbling, deserted schools. However, for years, many students with the worst disabilities have attended private schools at partial or full public expense. In most of these cases, public schools have concluded it would be prohibitively expensive to educate the toughest disability cases themselves.

  • Public school districts pay for more than 100,000 special education students to attend private schools at an estimated cost of $2 billion.
  • In addition, public school districts pay part of the costs of private schooling for nearly 66,000 other special education students.
  • For example, New Jersey, a major user of private providers, sent 5 percent of its special education students to private schools and paid part of the private school costs for another 7 percent in the 1994-95 school year.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, states must provide a "free appropriate public education" individually tailored to each disabled child's needs. School administrators determine whether public schools can provide the needed services or whether to use a private provider. When parents and school districts disagree about whether the public school has adequate facilities, the parents can take only the federal share of the cost of their child's education -- about 11 percent of the total -- and use it to underwrite private school tuition.

Public schools that do offer a wide range of services are often financially punished when a flood of disabled students move into their districts to take advantage of the better programs. Ironically, many of the states that do the most contracting with private special education providers normally oppose the use of private school vouchers in education.

The practice of inclusion, where disabled students are placed in public school classes with students who are not disabled, is supported by the Clinton administration and most advocates for the disabled. They maintain that inclusion boosts the confidence and academic achievement of disabled students. However, the majority of parents -- 65 percent in a recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll -- say the extra attention paid by instructors and classroom assistants to disabled students comes at the expense of their own children.

Source: Jonathan Fox, "Sending Public School Students to Private Schools," Policy Review, January/February 1999, Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002, (202) 546-4400.


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