Many Hawaii Schools To Miss Disabled-Services Deadline

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The state of Hawaii is just days away from a court-ordered deadline to improve significantly the way it provides education and mental-health services to children with disabilities. But while the state has made progress since a class action was filed in federal court in 1994, the departments of education and health, which were both named in the case, say all schools will not be in compliance by the end of the month.

"We're still facing the problem of having to come up with adequate numbers of licensed special education teachers, of having to come up with adequate numbers of mental-health providers," said Douglas Houck, a director for program support and development in the Hawaii Department of Education.

Late last month, U.S. District Judge David Ezra found the state in contempt for not meeting all the requirements of the consent decree in the case, which is known as Felix v. Cayetano.

The ruling was not unexpected, education officials said, and state schools Superintendent Paul G. LeMahieu called the decision "fair and positive."

"The judge depicted the system as poised to finish this work," he said in a written statement.

Now, the state must draw up a plan outlining how it will continue making the rest of the improvements and present it to the plaintiffs' lawyers. Next week, the parties in the case will appear in a hearing before a court official who will review parts of the plan on which the parties agree.

Follow-up hearings are scheduled for early August to resolve any remaining disagreements between the state and the plaintiffs.

Eric A. Seitz, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the parties generally agree on the actions that need to be taken and the timetable by which improvements should be made. Priorities, he said, include improving services for autistic children and devising an information system that would cut down on the paperwork required of special education teachers. But Mr. Seitz said he was discouraged by the fact that the state had filed a brief in a case, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, that will decide whether states have immunity from lawsuits under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. States are entitled to such immunity, the Hawaii brief argues.

If the high court rules that states are immune, it probably won't greatly affect local school districts, Mr. Seitz said. But Hawaii is unique in that it has a single, statewide school system, he pointed out, so a ruling in favor of state immunity would have a direct impact on education.

Close to Compliance

Five of the school system's complexes, meaning at least one high school and its feeder schools, are in compliance with the consent decree, which called for better identification of children with mental-health needs and more professionals to serve them.

Many others among the state's 42 complexes are close to compliance, Mr. Houck said.

"There are really only three or four that are major problem areas," said Greg Knudsen, a spokesman for the Hawaii department of education.

Those areas include some communities on the islands of Maui and Molokai, which because of their remote locations are difficult to serve.

Like many other states, Hawaii faces a shortage of special education teachers. But the problem is made worse because it's difficult to recruit teachers away from the mainland, and the state's own teacher education programs don't produce enough graduates to fill all the special education positions.

Even teachers who have grown up on Oahu, the state's most populated island, are reluctant to move to a neighboring island.

One possibility raised by the judge's ruling was giving more money to special education teachers.

"I think it would be helpful," Mr. Houck of the education department said, noting that some states offer "signing bonuses" to prospective special educators.

But the Hawaii State Teachers' Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is opposed to such incentives.

"The money is not enough," said Danielle Lum, a spokeswoman for the state union. What special education teachers really need, she argued, is more administrative support and less paperwork.

"It's a teaching-conditions issue," she said.

Giving more money to special education teachers, Ms. Lum added, would not be fair to regular education teachers who have special education students in their classrooms.

Price Tag Unknown

Another question is how much money would be needed to meet the requirements of the plan. That's one of the issues that will be addressed at next week's hearing.

"Nobody knows where the money will come from," Mr. Knudsen said.

Revenues in the state are up, following several years of poor economic conditions and a tight education budget.

But it might still be necessary, Mr. Knudsen said, for Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano, a Democrat, to restrict funding for certain programs in order to free enough money to pay for the plan.

One of the reasons the state is now having to play catch-up, Mr. Houck said, is that it didn't act as quickly as other states did in the 1970s when the federal government began requiring public schools to serve children with disabilities.

To make matters worse, just as the state needed to pour money into special education, the economy in Hawaii was in the midst of a recession.

"The two were not in sync," Mr. Houck said.

He added that even though there have been significant improvements since the lawsuit was filed, "the needs were initially greater than what was visualized five years ago." The court-mandated deadline for improvement is June 30.

Vol. 19, Issue 41, Pages 24-25

Published in Print: June 21, 2000, as Many Hawaii Schools To Miss Disabled-Services Deadline
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