- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

There always has been plenty of anecdotal evidence regarding the problems with the District’s special education programs. Assessments are tardy, lawyers are ripping off the system and school employees are looking the other way. Now comes a detailed report from D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols confirming parents’ every concern. In short, the report says that the District’s special education system is bankrupt of expertise and oversight.

The people most hurt by these and other longstanding problems are the children, of course. Currently, there are about 11,700 D.C. youths in special education programs — or about one in six of the total school population. To be sure, that’s a questionable figure (and an issue worthy of auditing and editorializing). At issue in Mrs. Nichols’ audit were several questions, chief among them which lawyers and law firms does DCPS pay as legal representatives of parents of special-ed students and how much are they paid. Yet, another important question is whether those lawyers and law firms hold financial or ownership interest in other services offered to their clients.

The D.C. Council’s education committee chairman, Kevin Chavous, knew precisely what he was looking for when he ordered the audit, and the Nichols team landed in all the right places. What she discovered appears scandalous.

“[A]ttorneys and law firms engaged in the questionable business practice of functioning as the legal representative of special education children and then referring these clients to assessment firms and private schools in which they held a proprietary or pecuniary interest,” the May 9 audit says. For example, the firm Murrell & Brown received more than $5 million from DCPS between fiscal 1999 and January of this year. The principals with that firm are Travis A. Murrell and James E. Brown, who also are members of the board of Educational Transition Services Inc., an advocacy group for disabled children that received more than $24 million in contracts from DCPS. The report also says that there are no incorporation documents for Murrell & Brown on file with the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

The audit identified other equally incestuous business relationships, and Mrs. Nichols said she will refer such matters to the D.C. Bar Association. She also went a step further, recommending that Superintendent Paul Vance refer such matters to law-enforcement authorities. We urge Mr. Vance as well.

Still, the audit merely underscores one aspect of a system long in need of an overhaul. Pertinent stakeholders already knew that special education students were languishing alongside their peers in traditional schools. We hope Mr. Chavous doesn’t wait for the system to reform itself from within. The system has had many an advocate over many years, and advocacy has its place. Stakeholders should be agitated by Mrs. Nichols’ audit. What seems to be happening instead is more complacency. Surely, that’s not what Mr. Chavous had in mind when he ordered the audit.

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