- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

A congressional budget amendment capping attorneys fees in special education lawsuits against the District's public schools could save the cash-strapped system millions of dollars.
The amendment, drafted by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, sets a $4,000 cap on fees paid by the school system to attorneys representing students with special needs. Mrs. Hutchison's office said the school system now spends $9,000 on average for attorneys' fees in special education suits.
The D.C. Appropriations Bill, including the amendment, passed both houses late Thursday night. The changes will kick in when President Bush signs the bill.
For years, lawyers have sued the D.C. school system on behalf of thousands of children with various disabilities who claim they are not receiving proper services.
The school system is required to pay legal fees when the child's case prevails, which has happened in most cases.
Last year, the system paid out $10 million in fees to attorneys representing special education students. Some 2,700 lawsuits were brought against the school system in 2001.
Congress in 1999 imposed a similar cap, heeding the school system's complaints. Schools saved an estimated $17.8 million over the next three years, sources said. But the cap was not reinstated in 2001 after intense lobbying from opponents that included the mayor and the D.C. Council.
"Congress has acted to ensure that more of Washington's education dollars are dedicated to students, not attorneys," Mrs. Hutchison said yesterday. "These common-sense limits will help the children of our nation's capital get a better education."
The amendment also will allow the chief financial officer of the District to refuse to pay attorneys if they have a pecuniary interest in special education services or providers.
In fiscal 1998, the school system spent $14 million on attorney fees in special education cases. In fiscal 1999, when the previous cap was in effect, the amount paid to attorneys dropped to $3.5 million, according to testimony provided by school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz to the Senate in November 2001.
Mrs. Cafritz yesterday said she was "ecstatic" the budget amendment had passed.
"It will definitely make a difference, and it will definitely not be injurious to the due process rights of our children," she said.
She said the $4,000 cap was "generously reasonable." It is possible, she said, for parents to hire good attorneys who would do the job for less than that.
D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat and head of the council's education committee, opposed the attorney fee cap in 1999, He did not return calls for comment yesterday.
Some parents said they were extremely disappointed. Caps are "wrong," said parent activist Susan Gushue. "How can it be right to keep the poorest children from getting the help they need?" she asked.
She said the only way to keep attorneys fees from going out of control was to improve special education services, which she said had not happened.
Ray Bryant, chief of special education reform for the District's schools, agreed that the schools' focus needs to be on improving special education programs to avoid lawsuits.
Mr. Bryant said the system had added some special education placements over the past year, had added early education programs and was working with some nonpublic special education schools to get them to create satellite schools in the District.
"It is about us doing our job better, and to that end any funds we can save helps us do our job better," Mr. Bryant said.

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