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

'Felix' costs are huge, but obligation is, too

State lawmakers are horrified — understandably so — at the price tag attached to compliance with the so-called Felix consent decree.

This is the agreement the state made to improve spending and services for special-needs students in public schools to meet federal requirements.

But before legislators faint away in shock, they should look at this picture in a slightly different light.

It is not how much we are being asked to spend today that is important; it is how little we spent in the past.

It was the state’s neglect of its obligations to special-needs students that eventually led to a lawsuit and a court-imposed agreement to make things right. The money we are spending today is money we did not spend, or spent on something else, in years past.

There are certain comforting signs, however. The first is that while the demand for Felix-related spending has soared, it will soon level off.

Second, even with the new spending, Hawaii will still be commiting a smaller slice of its overall education budget on special education than the national average.

All of that said, there still may be ways to keep the special education spending within rational bounds. That is the policy challenge facing lawmakers.

The first task will be to look clearly at the overall state budget to determine where special education spending is coming from and where it is going. For instance, overall spending on special education today is about evenly divided between the Department of Education and the Department of Health.

Is that the right allocation? Are there other Health Department funds that could be diverted to special education? Or are there other areas — say, social services — that are realizing savings now that we are doing a better job of educating our youngsters with special needs?

Then, too, there might be areas in which the state is spending more than it has to, or should, under the special education umbrella. A catch-up game of this magnitude is bound to have spawned some inefficiencies, particularly at the school-by-school level.

And at some level, administrators will have to accept the fact that it is impossible to create miracles, no matter how much is being spent. Special education is but one part of our overall educational mission.

What must not happen is for the Legislature or the administration to simply wish the problem away by declaring we are in compliance when we are not.

The obligation will not go away. Neither should our commitment to meeting it.

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