- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

The Senate last night passed an amendment to the D.C. appropriations bill that would set a cap on attorneys' fees paid in special education lawsuits against the District's school system.

The amendment, drafted by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, and passed unanimously last night, would set a $4,000 cap on fees paid by the school system to attorneys representing students.

It also allows the chief financial officer of the District to refuse to pay attorneys if they have a pecuniary interest in special education services or providers.

For years, lawyers have sued the D.C. school system on behalf of thousands of children with various disabilities, who the attorneys say are not receiving proper assessments or services.

The school system is required to pay legal fees when the child's case prevails, which has happened in most cases.

The D.C. appropriations bill was part of a massive $390 billion Senate measure financing most federal agencies.

The bill's 69-29 passage ended the first prolonged battle this year in the new Senate and set the stage for what could be prolonged negotiations with the House before a final measure can be sent to President Bush for his signature.

Mrs. Hutchison said yesterday there was a need to ensure that more of the city's education dollars helped students, not attorneys.

"These common-sense limits on attorneys' fees will save millions of dollars and help the children of our nation's capital," she said.

Sources in Mrs. Hutchison's office said the school system spent $9,000 on average for attorneys' fees.

Ray Bryant, chief of special education reform for the District's schools, said yesterday that the city paid out $10 million last year in fees to attorneys representing special education students. As many as 2,700 lawsuits were brought against the school system in 2001.

Mr. Bryant, who welcomed the amendment, said the school system needed such a provision.

"Any money that we aren't spending on attorneys can be spent on improving special education services," he said.

Congress in 1999 imposed a cap after the school system made similar complaints. The District saved an estimated $17.8 million over the three-year period, sources said. But the cap was not reinstated in 2001 after intense lobbying from the mayor and the D.C. Council.

In letters sent to Mayor Anthony A. Williams in 1999, D.C. Council members Kevin Chavous, Sharon Ambrose, Phil Mendelsohn and Kathy Patterson, among others, urged the mayor to lift the cap in light of parental concerns that it would affect representation in lawsuits against the school system.

In fiscal 1998, the school system spent $14 million on attorney fees.

In fiscal 1999, when the 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 on the Senate floor in November 2001.

"The District allocated all of this money saved to improving the quality of their special education programs," she said.

Schools Superintendent Paul L. Vance was not available for comment yesterday, but sources close to him said he has in the past supported a cap on attorney fees.

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