Educating the Difficult
Nonpublic Schools and Organizations Are Meeting Students' Special Needs
NOVEMBER 01, 1997 by LAWRENCE W. REED
Whenever the issue of “school choice” comes up for discussion, somebody inevitably will claim that the private sector can’t be trusted to serve the kids who are, for one reason or another, difficult to educate. Government schools are depicted as democratic, egalitarian institutions that take on all comers, including the toughest cases. Private alternatives are alleged to be inherently elitist organizations that “skim the cream” and leave the challenging kids to their courageous and altruistic public counterparts. This perspective is pure myth.
The fact is that children who are troubled, neglected, learning or emotionally disabled, or otherwise have special needs are often not well served in the conventional public school setting. They need help from nongovernmental sources, from people who know that you don’t have to be a civil servant to be either civil or a servant.
The private sector, including private sectarian schools, religious schools, nonpublic agencies, and homeschools, 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 body 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 may also include the cost of medical care and transportation.
Examples include Sobriety High in Edina, Minnesota, which educates 9th through 12th-grade students in recovery from chemical dependency. The famed Boys Town, based in Nebraska, directly cares for more than 27,000 boys and girls each year in 14 states and the District of Columbia. The Helicon Shelter Education Program, a division of Children’s Comprehensive Services, provides certified teachers, materials, curriculum, and academic record-keeping on site at 27 emergency foster-care shelters throughout the state of 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 percent 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.
Roman Catholic Church organizations alone operate nearly 200 schools throughout the United States specializing in educating children with disabilities. Among them are the St. Lucy Day School in Pennsylvania for children with visual impairments; the Mary Immaculate School in Toledo, Ohio, which serves 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 Down’s 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 multidisciplinary 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?”
The Reason Foundation report quotes another homeschooling parent, Devorah Weinmann. After the local public school psychologist refused to allow Weinmann’s learning- disabled daughter to start school one grade level below her age group, this dedicated mother opted to do the job herself and explained her decision this way: “She (her daughter) had been through five [foster care] placements by the age of four-and-a-half. She went through hell and back to become fairly secure. [The schools] weren’t looking at her as an individual. . . . She would just be shuffled along until she failed. I said, ‘I’m not doing this.’”
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 11 and 19 who require placement outside 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 10 and women under 40 in its residential program and school. Its acclaimed programs that teach self-help and work skills alongside spiritual values have benefited hundreds since 1957.
The problems these and other private institutions are solving are often problems no government organization would be equipped to address with maximum effectiveness, even if it were legal for it to try. Those situations, which require spiritual guidance and restoration of moral values rooted in a religious context, are simply beyond the reach of public employees.
Difficult-to-educate students present multiple challenges to educators and policy-makers. 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 meeting the special needs of a great number of students. As Americans continue to debate the direction of education reforms, they should not sell short the achievements of these private institutions.