Wisconsin students with disabilities and unique needs are sometimes unable to secure what, in their parents’ judgment, is an appropriate education at a public school. The courts and legislators have recognized that federal funds must be available for educating such students in private schools instead.
There is, nevertheless, a large disparity between the formally reported percentage of children in Wisconsin public schools who have disabilities (approximately 14 percent) and the percentage of children in private schools who have disabilities (less than 2 percent).1
This has led some to contend that private schools are not receptive to children with special needs.
A survey of private school administrators conducted by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute as part of the research for this paper dispels that myth. Private school administrators say both that they educate more children with disabilities (about 6 percent) than official Department of Public Instruction numbers reflect, and that would like to teach even more.
There are myriad, inter-related reasons why they can’t or don’t. Denials of funding are not uncommon, and what funding does exist is often inadequate. The system for determining which children receive assistance is not uniform. Public school officials are not always conducting the “child find” process in a timely manner. There is, in fact, at least the appearance of an inherent conflict of interest in requiring public school districts to identify and evaluate children in private schools who will receive federal funding through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) because this money is, in essence, subtracted from resources otherwise available to the school district.