Friday, January 12, 2001
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Posted on: Friday, January 12, 2001

Island Voices
Special education can be done

By Larry Geller
Executive director of the Hawai'i Coalition for Health

As the curtain rises on the 2001 legislative session, it is clear that Felix will be center stage. Cast in the leading role will be Superintendent Paul LeMahieu, who must convince legislators to back him with enough hard cash for his plan to forestall the wrath of the federal court. Offstage echoes the voice of a fatherly Judge David Ezra, both firm and understanding, giving the state more time while warning of painful consequences should it fall short.

Whether LeMahieu will triumph in his quest is the central conflict. If he does, this play may have a happy ending. If the feds take over special education, it will be a tragedy for the state but possibly a relief for our children.

Providing equal education to special-needs kids isn’t rocket science. What do legislators need to know to ensure a happy ending?

Legislators who think Felix spending has been excessive must understand that the children are not getting "Cadillac" services. Both educational and mental-health services are far from being in compliance. The state was not found in contempt because the children are getting too much. Many parents say they have to fight and fight and still cannot get needed services.

Understand that it will take money. LeMahieu stated that Hawaii spends only 14 percent of its education budget for special education while the national average is 24 percent. This means we are spending only about 58 percent of what it most likely takes to do the job.

Although the Department of Education has complied with the court order by engaging a Mainland firm to hire special-education teachers, the deal has been good enough to entice only seven teachers so far. How will LeMahieu find the rest? It will probably come down to offering even better compensation. If so, legislators need to know that.

Henny Youngman quipped, "Every time I ask what time it is, I get a different answer." Our legislators must feel a bit puzzled as they ask how much Felix will cost. The Department of Health comes hat in hand to the Capitol asking for tens of millions of dollars in emergency funding each year. Perhaps this provides the comic relief.

By now, the agencies should have done their homework. The Felix budget should be detailed and accurate, without the gross errors that the legislative auditor has identified. And the DOH may need to explain why, if 70 to 80 percent of the kids have been turned over to the DOE for in-school services, they still have not reduced staff and cut the Children’s Division budget instead of asking for emergency funding.

If the agencies can’t do the math, there are accounting firms that can. Of course, if the feds take over, the Legislature will get an itemized bill.

The DOE is on a cost-saving binge to replace the licensed professionals who have provided services to the children up to now. But LeMahieu admitted at a Ways and Means Committee hearing that teachers at Individual Educational Plan meetings "don’t know what is going on." The professionals do.

Professionals understand disabilities and make recommendations that the DOE would be wise to follow. And they have been providing services these years while the DOE, which was the source of the Felix problem to begin with, simply left it to them to "fix" the kids. Legislators should think how the court might view the breakdown of services that could result from turning children over to people who "don’t know what is going on."

The Felix Consent Decree is the state’s broken promise that it will follow the law and provide services for the children. Let’s hope the DOE and this Legislature close the curtain on Felix this year by keeping their 1994 promise.

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