FOX 29 Investigates: Education Advocate's Credentials

Parents of children with special needs will understandably do anything to make sure their kids get the services they deserve.

Many hire and pay an advocate to join them in their efforts.

But what if that advocate won't open up about her own schooling? FOX 29 Investigates' Jeff Cole has this report.

Special Education programs will cost Pennsylvania taxpayers nearly a billion dollars this school year. The stakes are high: helping special needs kids to thrive.

"It's not one-size-fits-all for all kids. If your child's not being successful, then you get this individualized education plan," says Dr. Jessica Glass Kendorski, an associate professor at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and a school psychologist.

Coming up with that plan is a team effort, she said.

But sometimes, there are differing views on what's needed.

"And sometimes, when the parents disagree, that's when you see more of an advocate could come in and support that," Glass Kendorski said.

Meet special education advocate Marie C. Lewis. For the past 17 years, she has been hired by parents to get the instruction they believe their children need.

What makes Lewis qualified? According to her bio, "she has personally journeyed the special education maze" and has impressive academic credentials.

"I have a Ph.D., I'm an R.N., with a masters in psychology and a Ph. in applied psychology," Lewis said.

That's right. Lewis, of Delaware County, claims she's a doctor.

On the website of a national advocacy organization Lewis founded and directs – the National Center for Autism Resources and Education, and its teaching arm, the National Special Education Advocacy Institute – she lists a Ph.D., and it's on her LinkedIn resume, too.

Where she'd go to school? It just says "R.U."

"Where's your Ph.D. from?" Cole asked.

"From Rockville University," Lewis said.

"Where's that, ma'am?" Cole followed-up.

"And so, why are you asking that question?" Lewis asked.

We wanted to know where it is.

"Well, Rockville used to be in Maryland, and they moved, and they actually were absorbed by another school," Lewis told us.

We checked with Maryland's Higher Education Commission. No college or university may operate in the state without commission approval, and it has no record of a "Rockville University" when Lewis claims she got her Ph.D. in 2008.

"You have a Ph.D.? You are a doctor?" Cole asked.

"I have a doctorate in applied psychology," Lewis answered.

"You do?" Cole asked.

"Yes, I do," Lewis said.

And there's something else.

"You have a master's from the University of Santa Monica," Cole said. "Now, that's an unaccredited institution, correct?"

"It's accredited in California," Lewis stated.

Actually, that's not quite accurate.

The "spiritual psychology" degree that Lewis said she got while living here in Pennsylvania is from a university that's approved by the state of California, but not accredited.

Why were we asking Lewis about her credentials? She charges local families fees to represent them before schools. She provides expert testimony when they land in court. The families ask courts to cover her fees. And she's trying to train others to do the same work.

While there's legally no licensure needed, her group wants to give advocacy credibility as a professional service.

Lewis' group charges up to $2,000 for a 12-part training, and it asks sponsors to chip in as much as $25,000.

Participants with certain backgrounds get a new title: Board-Certified Education Advocate.

According to tax documents filed after Lewis' organization was founded in 2008, the certifying board was Lewis' family and her lawyer.

The "national" group has only a handful of members from outside our area and a post office box in Washington, D.C.

"Do you have a non-profit status with the IRS?" Cole inquired.

"We do have a non-profit status with the IRS. We have an EIN number. We have, you know, all those non-profit numbers. We have the letter from the IRS," she said.

But we found the IRS actually revoked the group's tax-exempt status – which lets it collect tax-free donations – in 2012.

And all of this is run by a woman who can't seem to tell us where she got her doctoral degree.

"Who took it over? Does it exist?" Cole asked of her school. "You don't know?"

"This was investigated several years ago by the Pennsylvania Department," Lewis said.

"Why can't you tell me? You seem like you don't want to tell me?" Cole pressed.

"I do want to tell you. It's just that I'm really willing to respond in writing to this, not a problem," Lewis said.

"So, you will not tell me – you tell me that you have a valid Ph.D. from an accredited institution. You say it's…" Cole said.

"I didn't say – I said that I have a Ph.D., that's what I said to you," Lewis said. "I don't want to misrepresent in any way to you."

When we wrote Lewis, her lawyer, Donald Litman, questioned the "relevance" of her academic record to our report, adding, "She is a registered nurse in Pennsylvania, who has experience with helping children get services from many school districts."

Litman mentioned nothing about her Ph.D.

Advocating for special needs kids is important.

"Because sometimes, well, when it's your child, you may not be hearing what is being said," said Glass Kendorski, who has a Ph.D. from Temple University.

She advises parents to take a friend or advocate to special ed. school meetings.

"You don't need a Ph.D. to be an advocate," Glass Kendorski said, when we asked her about any advocate you might take.

"You don't need one?" Cole asked.

"No, no," she said.

But it helps.

"And a Ph.D. certainly communicates that you are an expert," the associate professor from PCOM said.

That's why we pressed Lewis about her background.

"All I want to know is, I just want to be certain that your credentials that you represent to folks are exactly accurate. I think that's fair," Cole said.

"I think that's, I think that's absolutely fair," Lewis said. "I do think that's fair."

Later, she told us again, "I'm very willing to let you talk to – ask me those questions in writing, give you anything in writing you want."

In an email to her attorney late last week, we told him Maryland's Higher Education Commission said there was no Rockville University operating in the state when Lewis claims to have earned her Ph.D.

We asked if her doctorate had come from "Rochville University," spelled "R-O-C-H," an on-line, unaccredited entity. We received no answer.

On the tax issue, Lewis' attorney wrote the group believed it was not required to file a 990 tax form. Now it has and is seeking reinstatement of its tax-exempt status, Cole reported.