Attorneys' Fees for Access to Special Education Opportunities

GAO-02-559R: Published: May 22, 2002. Publicly Released: May 22, 2002.

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Jeanette M. Franzel
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The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) has been unable to meet the obligation to its special education students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). By 1998, DCPS was experiencing serious problems in conducting timely hearings requested by parents under IDEA and in issuing final decisions within the required timelines. This resulted in many complaints and law suits by parents. The amount of attorneys' fees awarded to parties who prevailed in the IDEA cases was costly to the District of Columbia. The District of Columbia Appropriations Acts for fiscal years 1999, 2000, and 2001 limited the amount of appropriated funds that could be paid to an attorney representing a prevailing party in an action brought against DCPS under IDEA. GAO reviewed DCPS's IDEA awards and payments for fiscal years 1999, 2000, and 2001 to determine if they exceeded the acts' limitations. GAO found that the limitations had little impact on the total amount awarded by the courts for the attorney's fees. The limitations apply only to the amount that the District of Columbia could pay to a prevailing party under IDEA and not the amount that the court could award. When there is also an independent legal basis to award attorneys' fees, such as the Civil Rights Act, the court could do so without regard to the appropriations acts' limitations. Factors such as the history and scope of special education programs, as well as the likelihood of a district's success in prevailing in IDEA complaints, significantly affect the number and types of cases a school district faces. These factors need to be considered when comparing data for attorneys' fees awarded under IDEA across school districts.

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