Sunday, January 7, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 7, 2001

Special-education costs ripple through schools

By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer

Haleiwa resident Barbara Williams has seen teachers photocopying homework pages from textbooks because there aren’t enough books for each student. She sees the dilapidated condition of Hawaii’s schools. And she sees the crowded classrooms her son has sat in, first at Sunset Elementary and now Kahuku Intermediate and High.

Felix consent decree details

Issued in 1994 by chief U.S. District Judge David Ezra as a result of a class-action lawsuit on behalf of special-education students in Hawaii who also need mental health services.

The decree requires the state departments of Education and Health to better identify those children, then treat and educate them in the "least-restrictive environment."

In May, Ezra found the state in contempt for not improving services as he had ordered. The state now faces a December deadline. The heads of the departments of Education and Health have been given extraordinary powers to reach compliance.

Since 1994, the state has increased the number of special-education students from 13,000 to nearly 23,000. That accounts for 12 percent of Hawaii’s student population, comparable to the percentage of special-education students in the nation’s 77 largest school districts. The state Department of Education has increased special-education spending from $80 million in 1994 to $201 million this year. Total state spending on special education, including Health Department money, brings the total to $363 million.

The consent decree was named for Jennifer Felix, whose name was at the top of the class-action suit. Jennifer, who is mentally retarded, spent much of her adolescence and young adulthood on the Mainland because there were no facilities or programs available in Hawaii.

Then she sees special-education classrooms with just a few students. She sees a school bus that picks up and drops off just one special-

education student. She hears about the hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into special education — and she has to ask if it’s fair.

"I find it really ridiculous when kids at school don’t have books and these special-ed kids — the money is just being pumped into it like crazy," Williams said. "We need a little equality here."

While no one denies that Hawaii’s special-needs children deserve every ounce of attention they are getting under the Felix consent decree, parents, teachers and lawmakers are starting to ask a new question:

What about the other children?

With the system under federal court oversight and struggling to improve special education after years of neglect, the answer may not come for months, maybe even years.

Williams can’t provide the answer either. She said dedicated teachers have given her son a good education, but she’s worried.

"I know what is going on with special ed isn’t benefiting regular-education kids at all," she said.

State Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu doesn’t believe the negative effect on regular education is pervasive. But he does see it as a legitimate concern.

And he agrees Felix is having at least an indirect effect on the money available for regular education.

"To this date, we have not taken one dollar from regular education for special education," he said. "But it is true that we have put a disproportionate amount of new money into special education. Do I wish that was different? Yes."

Hawaii has been ramping up its special-education services since 1994, when a federal court judge found it was failing children with special needs. After being found in contempt in May for not improving services as ordered, the state was given a second chance, and now faces a new, December deadline to show the court it is meeting the children’s needs. If the state fails, the education system faces a possible federal court takeover.

Mammoth task

The shock waves from Felix are rippling through the school system and the state as decision makers struggle to come to grips with the mammoth task and the equally large budget. The cost for special education has risen more than 400 percent since the Felix case was filed in 1993; this year it’s expected to cost $363 million.

But Felix is not just about money. It’s also about time and resources for a department that already is stretched thin. Teachers are having to do double duty to cope with a staffing shortage. They face more paperwork and have more needy children in their already crowded classrooms.

Keolu Elementary teacher Elly Tepper said concern about the ramifications for regular education is very real. The state’s 2000 Teacher of the Year has watched with dismay as Felix has created a division among children.

"The intent of Felix is absolutely righteous," Tepper said. "However, the extent of the services being required ... compared with the resources we have to fulfill those mandates have meant cutting corners for regular education."

In the last year, teachers have told the Board of Education about their concerns: that students with emotional disabilities can become disruptive and sometimes dangerous in class; that they have to leave their students with substitutes so they can attend lengthy special-education meetings; that they don’t have the training to cope with the children’s special needs.

Time lost in class

One of the biggest impacts comes from the federal law that requires special-education students to be placed in mainstream classes wherever possible. Those children are supposed to come into the regular-education classroom with extra staff, but shortages mean that doesn’t always happen.

The result is less time and attention for each child.

And while Tepper agrees that special-needs children should be included — "I love having them there" — the result has been even more crowding. That’s because Hawai’i’s formula for calculating regular-education class sizes does not count all special-education students, she said.

Tepper has 27 students in her class this year. Ten of them have special needs. As an experienced teacher, Tepper is able to juggle the stressful workload, but she worries about colleagues new to the profession.

Instead of separating children into different categories, Tepper believes the education system needs to find a team approach that meets the needs of all children.

The Department of Education’s Comprehensive Student Support System aims to do just that. Under the program, schools must build a network of support to meet every child’s needs, whether it be academic, social or emotional. But because of the intense pressures of Felix, the system is not reaching all children, Tepper said.

At nearby Lanikai Elementary, parent Kerry Gershaneck has similar concerns about the consequences of Felix.

Gershaneck, who sits on the charter school’s board, said he has heard the concerns from parents, students and teachers.

"It is important to note that in the past, the special-education students received very little from the state," he said. "With Felix, the pendulum rightfully began swinging the other way, but there is a perception that the pendulum may be swinging too far."

He worries about another group of students: those identified as gifted and talented. If their needs aren’t addressed, Gershaneck believes the drain to private schools will increase.

Gershaneck said he was stunned to discover that Lanikai’s budget included $30,000 for special education and just $400 for gifted-and-talented programs. The board and school are working hard to restore the balance, he said.

It’s the same story statewide, where less than 1 percent of the education budget goes to gifted-and-talented programs. This year, about 17 percent of the state’s $1.2 billion budget will go to special education to support 12 percent of the student population.

Yet that’s still less than the 24 percent other states spend, on average, on special education, LeMahieu said. He pointed out that Hawaii is playing catch-up after years of neglecting children with special needs.

And while the DOE has so far been able to avoid cutting into other programs, that could change abruptly if the federal court finds the state has not met the December compliance deadline.

Searching for money

At a legislative briefing last week, Deputy Attorney General Russell Suzuki said the department could be compelled to take money from other programs, such as A-Plus or athletics, to help improve special education.

Rep. Ken Ito (D-Kaneohe) said he worries about the implications. He and other lawmakers are looking at several ways to find the money for both Felix and regular education this session.

But with the tension growing around Felix, a more cynical possibility is joked about in education circles.

"We say facetiously — or maybe sometimes not so facetiously — that what we need is a suit from regular-ed parents," Tepper said. "And that’s a sad thing to say, to say that the only way to get the balance back is with anti-litigation."

A better way, she believes, is to increase the support for all education.

"We need to pose the question to all of ourselves: Is there a limited pot of money, so we can spend on some children and not on others, and on some workers and not on others?

"In the end it comes down to priorities, and if children are not the most important thing, then there is no future."

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