Your Child May Need More Services Than a Free Public School Provides: What Parents Need to Know About the Cost of Alternatives

I started doubting whether the public school could do any more for my daughter—but I had no idea whether I could afford an alternative solution.

An image of a girl doing homework.
Photo: Getty Images.

During the early days of the pandemic, I learned my 10-year-old daughter has ADHD and dyslexia. She attends our neighborhood elementary school, and up until her diagnosis, I took for granted the school's ability to meet her educational needs.

But when she went back in person, she began coming home each day exhausted from having to work harder than her peers to keep up. And she no longer had the energy for once-loved after-school activities, such as dance classes. I started doubting whether the public school could do any more for my daughter—but I had no idea whether I could afford an alternative solution, such as private school, homeschooling, or outside tutoring.

The average annual tuition for private K-12 schools is $12,350, according to But that number varies widely based on where you live and whether the school focuses solely on kids with learning differences.

"In New York, you might pay $70,000 a year for a special education school, whereas you'd pay around $30,000 in a state like North Carolina," Bob Cunningham tells Parents. Cunningham is executive director of learning development at Understood, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the millions of families of kids who learn and think differently.

An alternative such as homeschooling can be great—if your family includes two parents and you can afford to have one stay home. But there are many hidden costs to homeschooling that parents often forget: "Expenses like transportation, field trips, museum memberships, computers, assistive technology, and the curriculum all come from your pocket," notes Cunningham. "Plus, if you aren't skilled at teaching your child with learning differences, you may end up outsourcing this role, and that can get quite expensive."

Private tutoring also has a wide range of average costs. According to Understood, rates range anywhere from $25 to $80 an hour and can be higher in major cities. And specialized reading instructors, such as those with an Orton-Gillingham certification, cost more than traditional tutors.

Weighing the Low Cost of Staying in Public School Vs. Higher-Cost Alternatives

Public schools are required by law to provide evaluations and plans for special-education services, but they are often only as good as the amount of funding they receive. A 2019 report by Edbuild found that, on average, poor, nonwhite school districts receive 19 percent, or about $2,600, less per student than affluent white school districts. The Hechinger Report, a non-profit newsroom dedicated to education, states that schools with the wealthiest students tend to draw the most experienced teachers, who cost more, leaving poorer schools with higher teacher turnover and less ability to personalize services.

It's not just poorer schools that lack resources for students with learning disabilities. "More affluent schools can also be under-resourced because they expect parents to fill in the gaps with tutoring and services like occupational or speech therapy," says Dr. Cunningham. "And regardless of funding, you may have a higher expectation for your child than the school, which leads to conflict and disappointment."

"Academic issues, like not meeting agreed-upon goals or failing to change goals over time, are also common reasons parents look elsewhere," says Dr. Paul Yellin, director of The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education in New York City. "Or the school is focused on getting through the curriculum but not on teaching children the skills they need to move forward in life."

For instance, my daughter struggles with handwriting. Her Individualized Education Program (IEP) allows a scribe to write for her, but that won't help her become more independent as she grows.

"Parents also look outside the public school system when their child is unhappy or struggling to make friends," says Cunningham. For example, the pace of learning could be too fast or the teacher isn't responsive to their needs. Kids who are pulled from class for special services may get teased or labeled as "less than" by their classmates. "Parents and children can also be frustrated by how much time they are spending in after-school tutoring or weekend prep programs. Their whole childhood experience is revolving around their disability, resulting in anxiety and depression," Cunningham adds.

Evaluating Private Schools

Not all private schools (also called independent schools) are created equal for kids with learning needs. Dr. Yellin says traditional private schools where kids are accepted based on religious affiliation, academic standards, or other qualifications aren't always great for kids with learning differences. They aren't legally obligated to provide special education services. Still, many offer Individual Service Plans (ISP) through a local education agency.

Then there are private schools with well-developed support systems for children with learning needs and those dedicated to educating only children with specific learning differences, like autism, dyslexia, ADHD, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, auditory processing disorder, and more. Also, schools for kids with special needs offer a low teacher-to-student ratio, faculty with advanced degrees and certifications, and programs to build confidence and life skills.

"When evaluating private schools, always visit first, and find out where graduates from the school go next. Do they help the child transition back to a public school setting if that's your goal, or provide college or career assistance?" says Dr. Yellin. "These are important considerations parents sometimes miss."

Tuition Assistance and Tax Breaks

"Schools for children with learning disabilities almost always cost more than traditional independent schools, but almost no one pays the sticker price," says Cunningham. "There are scholarship programs and tuition discounts. Talk to the school's admission officer about opportunities for financial aid."

You can also look into your state or local school district's policy toward private placements: when the district agrees to pay for private school tuition because it can't provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Plus, you can negotiate with your child's IEP team if you disagree with the supports they're providing. "One strategy is to look at tuition for a good local private school and compare it to one for kids with learning differences. Then, ask the IEP team to pay the difference," says Cunningham.

Additionally, the federal tax code allows families to use $10,000 per year from a 529 plan to pay private school tuition for kids in grades K-12. And some states offer an additional tax benefit.

Private schools are a significant investment, and there's a lot to know about the law and local district policies. "I advise finding an advocate, consultant, or attorney who specializes in your area. They can save you thousands of dollars throughout your child's education," says Cunningham.

Homeschooling, Tutoring, and Non-Traditional Alternatives

One silver lining from the pandemic is that many parents saw their kids thrive in a less-than-traditional learning environment and decided to continue homeschooling or enroll in an online education program.

The Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) estimates the yearly cost of homeschooling a child falls anywhere from $100 to $500 and up. HSLDA provides tips like using the local library for books and used curriculum, shopping on tax-free holidays, and looking for free educational events in your area.

For kids with learning differences, you'll need to factor in the addition of remedial reading programs and specialized instructors. The good news is several excellent free online tutoring programs exist, like Khan Academy and Math Learning Center. Follow this guide from Understood to find other free or low-cost tutoring options. Parents may also opt to find a group of like-minded families and share expenses.

Finally, alternative schools, like those dedicated to performing arts, learning a trade, or boarding schools, can range from free (funded by tax dollars) to tens of thousands of dollars per year.

Only your family can determine whether the benefits of pursuing education outside of the public school system outweigh the costs. The good news is with guidance and research, finding the right school or services for your child can be more affordable than you think.

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