One of the most daunting challenges Hawaii has faced in the 10-year effort to overhaul its special education system is finding enough adequately trained teachers to meet students’ needs.
What is known as the Felix consent decree, stemming from a 1993 federal lawsuit against the state, required the Hawaii education and health departments to establish a better system of identifying children with special needs and providing them with appropriate educational and mental-health services. But recruiting teachers, particularly for remote areas off Hawaii’s most populated island, Oahu, has called for special incentives.
“We have been able to attract teachers from the West Coast as the job market shrinks because of the economy,” says Paul Ban, the director of the state education department’s special education services branch. “But by no means are we out of the woods in terms of the shortage.”
As part of the “Felix Response Plan,” the state education department offers a relocation bonus to teachers who move to Hawaii from the mainland United States. The bonus, meant to help teachers with moving expenses, ranges from $1,500 for those coming from West Coast states to $4,500 for those moving from the East Coast.
Moreover, the department has worked to lure regular education teachers within the state who also have special education licenses. The aim is to recruit those teachers to work in the field for three years. Teachers who have not worked in special education for at least two years and decide to move to that field are each eligible for a $10,000 bonus, spread out over the three years.
Keeping educators in special education is another goal of the department—one that officials have tried to accomplish by providing a retention incentive for special education teachers working in areas of Hawaii where positions are hard to fill. That $3,000 bonus, paid each year for three years, applies to teachers working on the islands of Molokai and Lanai, and in certain communities on the islands of Hawaii and Maui.
Finally, for several years, the state education department has given teachers an opportunity to earn fast-track licenses in special education. Formerly called RISE, or Re-specialization in Special Education, the program is now called the Alternative Route to Licensure in Special Education.
The program targets those not yet licensed in special education but who already teach in Hawaii’s single, statewide school district, as well as those not yet employed by the system. Those who are already hired work in special education positions while they are completing the courses and other requirements for the program.
But even with those diverse incentives, vacancies remain, Ban says. Particularly tough-to-fill positions include those working with children who are autistic and those in the area of low-incidence disabilities, such as blindness or deafness. If teachers leave such positions during the school year, it can be hard to replace them because the pool of applicants is not large.
Still, Ban says, progress has occurred, and the state is gradually weaning itself from using an outside agency to recruit teachers from the mainland.
Now, the state hopes that the federal judge overseeing the consent decree will recognize Hawaii’s efforts to comply with the mandate. The state already has been found in substantial compliance, and a decision on whether to lift the court order was expected early this year.
“We’re putting our best foot forward,” Ban says.
A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week