Wednesday, February 7, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, February 7, 2001

Say's penny-pinching on Felix is dangerous

House Speaker Calvin Say complains that the cost of fulfilling the state’s financial obligations under the Felix consent decree is just like turning over a "blank check."

He and other angry lawmakers are threatening to hold an emergency installment of $137 million hostage in an effort to control the soaring costs of the program.

You might find their anger understandable. After all, the cost of providing special education in Hawaii’s public schools has soared from $68.6 million in 1993, the year the Felix case began, to a projection of more than $360 million in 2003. There’s no new money for these endlessly rising costs; it has to be diverted from other, sometimes equally valuable, programs.

Indeed, many people in our schools think they’re beginning to see a diversion of resources from mainstream students, meager as they are, to support the Felix effort.

Add to that the findings of a recent state auditor’s report that suggests that special-ed programs lack the most fundamental administrative controls, thus contributing to accelerating costs.

But Say can’t claim he couldn’t see this coming. This newspaper, for one, has been warning for years that the state’s failure to produce an acceptable special-ed system on its own would be far more painful and costly in the long run than doing the right thing voluntarily and promptly.

Almost single-handedly, federal Judge David Ezra has been attempting to drag this state, kicking and screaming, toward overhaul of a system he once said was in the Dark Ages. Certainly it has been an embarrassment to a state that likes to think of itself as progressive. Even with current spending, Hawai'i is still below average in special-ed spending.

But Say, angered by the runaway Felix budget requests coming from the state Education and Health departments, promises to "hold their feet to the fire."

If Say can bring efficiency to the Felix effort — that is, make it cheaper and more effective — then more power to him.

Say’s huge difficulty, however, will be to convince Judge Ezra that he and his colleagues are interested in fiscal prudence, not in defiance of the judge’s orders. That piece of business must be taken care of, right away.

Given the state’s hapless record, Ezra can’t be blamed for suspecting a backsliding into this state’s time-honored pattern of turning its back on the most vulnerable and powerless members of our society.

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