Credit: Tom Deja

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Think you can’t afford a ritzy private school? Even the application fees too much for you? Ready to settle for your just-OK neighborhood D.C. public school? Don’t despair: Make your case and you could send your child to private school, transportation included, on the taxpayer’s dime.
Here’s the catch: You need to prove that your child has special needs—needs that a D.C. public school can’t meet.

According to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), every student should have access to a free public education, including those with disabilities. If a school district can’t meet a child’s needs, IDEA requires the district pay for a private-school placement. The D.C. schools are harder hit than most—nationwide, 12 percent of special-education grievances lead to hearings; in D.C., 97 percent do. In 2005, DCPS spent $118 million to send 2,283 special-ed students to private facilities.

“People say [they have so many hearings] because D.C. has a terrible special-education program,” says Judith Greenberg, an educational advocate and director of the School Finders consulting firm, but “the reality is that they have very little special-education programs at all.”

The result is a lot of hearings and litigation. DCPS has nine lawyers on staff who handle as many as 3,000 hearings each year, according to D.C. Appleseed, a local nonprofit that studied special education in 2003. At this point, DCPS sends so many students to some Maryland and Virginia private schools that they often get a bargain price.

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