The Sept. 21 editorial "Special Ed's Special Problem" summarized the arguments of those who oppose the current $50-an-hour cap on the fees for lawyers who represent parents or guardians in actions against the D.C. Public Schools brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. I, however, wholeheartedly support this cap and endorse its inclusion in the District's FY '00 appropriations act.
The objective behind this cap is laudable: to reduce special-education funding that goes to attorneys rather than to children with disabilities. Almost one year after the enactment of the cap -- which established rates for special-education attorneys at the same level as that paid to lawyers representing the District's abused and neglected children -- this objective has been met.
Prior to the cap, special education-related legal fees had skyrocketed from $2.7 million in FY '97 to more than $14 million in FY '98. Since the cap, at least $10 million that would have gone to lawyers instead has been used to provide student services.
The editorial suggested that the cap might make it "more difficult for special-needs children to get the education to which they are entitled," but that has not happened. Thanks, in part, to the millions saved because of the limit on legal fees, the schools have been able to establish new special-education programs using money that otherwise might have been spent on funding private-school tuitions.
Twelve new special-education programs now are housed in 10 elementary and two middle schools; 20 new early childhood programs now are located in elementary schools throughout the city; and the Taft Diagnostic-Prescriptive Center, housed in the former Taft Junior High School, now serves as a transition site for students exhibiting behaviors that temporarily preclude them from remaining in regular education settings.
Contrary to the the prediction by Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew, the limit on attorneys' fees is not "likely to limit the access of the District's poor families to quality legal representation, thus impairing their due process." Between Oct. 21, 1998 (the effective date of the cap), and mid-August, more than 50 law firms, attorneys and legal services clinics filed more than 1,000 due-process hearing requests, many on behalf of families in the poorest sections of the District and on the behalf of children who are the District's wards.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman is right: Capping attorneys' fees will not solve the problems of special education in the District. However, the money saved as the result of this cap will provide the schools with millions of dollars to help fix the broken special-education system.
A new special-education administration has been in place since June, headed by Anne Gay, a highly regarded former D.C. school principal. Contrary to the editorial's dire warning that "there's a prospect that the city could lose millions in federal funds though continued maladministration of special education," the school system, under Ms. Gay and her administrative leadership team, already has received more than $11 million in federal funding that had been withheld from the school system for two years.
Operation of an effective special-education program and the imposition of a cap on fees of attorneys who represent special-needs children are not mutually exclusive. If the D.C. budget undergoes further revisions, I hope more resources will be directed to students. Toward that end, the cap should stay.
-- Arlene Ackerman
is the superintendent of D.C. Public Schools.