D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has created a false choice in the controversy about special education: lawyers or children ["Less for Lawyers, More for Our Special-Ed Children," Close to Home, Oct. 3]. If special education needs more money, it should be included in the D.C. budget. Lawyers, unfortunately, often have been -- and continue to be -- necessary in order to get children with disabilities access to appropriate educational services.
The cap that Ackerman placed on the fees of lawyers who represent poor, special-needs children and their families is set at less than a quarter of the market rate for the first 26 hours of legal work in a case and at zero thereafter.
Ackerman claims that this fee schedule doesn't adversely affect children, but D.C. public schools data submitted to the U.S. District Court showed a 10 percent decline in hearing requests in the first six months of the fee cap compared with the same period one year earlier. Ackerman's 10-month figure of 1,000 due-process hearings represents a further decline of nearly 50 percent in requests per month.
Moreover, extensive evidence has been submitted to the court that lawyers (except for legal clinics, which are at capacity) have stopped taking new cases if the families cannot pay their legal fees.
The right way to reduce legal fees is to make it possible for people to gain access to appropriate educational services without needing a lawyer. A system that consistently loses hundreds of cases and pays out millions in legal fees each year is doing something wrong. As a manager, Ackerman is responsible for finding out what is wrong and then holding the responsible parties accountable. Instead she has chosen to address symptoms and bash plaintiffs' lawyers. Even D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams no longer supports her position on fee caps [Metro, Oct. 14].
Ackerman has been trying to improve special-education services in the District, but the fee cap has not provided any funding for the improvements she has made. Plaintiffs' attorneys' fees in court cases are paid out of a budget category that cannot be used for special education. The school system submitted a budget with proposed funding for attorneys' fees that fell short of projected expenditures by more than $7 million. The fee cap simply closed that budgetary gap, with no resultant increase in the budget for special-education services.
The District's special-education program is so badly broken -- as Ackerman herself has acknowledged -- that it will take years to fix. Meanwhile, how many special-needs children are to be sacrificed to the pretext of funding special-education improvements?
-- Henry B. R. Beale
is the father of a former special-education student.