D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday he now opposes a controversial cap on fees that private lawyers can charge for representing special education plaintiffs in their lawsuits against the D.C. public school system.

The mayor's change of heart was announced at a D.C. Council hearing, at which several council members expressed increasing exasperation with what they said were Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's misleading statements about the issue of attorneys fees.

Congress, at Ackerman's urging, last year imposed a one-year cap on lawyer fees.

Special education has been one of Ackerman's biggest headaches since she became superintendent in May 1998, inheriting an expensive, poorly performing program that increasingly has eaten into the school system's budget.

After learning that private lawyers who prevailed in special education cases were being paid more than $10 million a year, she sought to put a limit on the fees--arguing that the lawyers charged too much and that the money could be better spent on efforts to reform the program.

Congress capped fees at $50 an hour for lawyers who ordinarily charge around $200 hourly, with a $1,300 limit for most cases. At Ackerman's request, Congress is considering renewing the fee limit--with a higher cap--in this year's D.C. appropriations bill.

Special education activists say the cap leaves poor families in the District without legal representation when schools fail to provide good programs. These families, they argue, have had no choice but to hire lawyers because the system has chronically failed to evaluate students in a timely manner and often doesn't provide legally required services. They also contend that the District drives up attorney fees by going to court to fight cases they can't win.

In addition, they say that it is unfair to limit fees for attorneys of the parents when the school system is paying as much as $300 an hour for private lawyers to handle their cases.

Williams supported the original cap, then earlier this year agreed with the D.C. Council to drop it out of the appropriations bill sent to Congress. But a short time later, he reaffirmed support for Ackerman's bid to get the cap reinstated in the bill.

The mayor's latest reversal was announced by Gregory McCarthy, head of the D.C. Office of Policy and Evaluation. He said Williams had never seen the cap as a long-term solution and had since listened to community advocates and lawyers and decided his position should be changed.

"We now recognize that extensive and often adversarial energies have been expended in discussion of this cap, energies better engaged in collective efforts to improve this dysfunctional system," McCarthy said.

It's unclear how Congress will react to Williams's new position, congressional sources said.

Williams earlier proposed to move the University of the District of Columbia from Northwest Washington to a site in Anacostia, but dropped the much-criticized plan after strong student protest and after learning the city did not own the land.

At yesterday's hearing, Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks defended the cap, calling it necessary to Ackerman's reform effort. She was asked by council members about what they called conflicting statements by Ackerman in the past year about the attorneys' fee issue, and two council members said they were questioning the administration's credibility.

Bethann West, head of a D.C.-based organization called Advocates for Public Justice, said she has a list of 25 families for whom she has not been able to find representation. Lawyers Margy Kohn and Beth Goodman said that they have not taken any contingency cases since the cap was imposed. In past years, Goodman's law firm would have handled as many as 60 cases, she said.

CAPTION: Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had sought a limit on attorney fees.