Wednesday, January 24, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Special-education audit disputed at hearing

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Previous stories:
Auditor traces special education costs to poor oversight
Special education costs ripple through schools
Legislators balking at Felix costs
As Hawaii school and health officials, along with the state attorney general’ staff, debated a report that criticized their implementation of the Felix consent decree, the authors of the document stood by their findings.

They told legislators in a hearing yesterday that Hawaii has opened the floodgates for special-education spending without defining which students are eligible.

Although there are more services available for special-needs children, there is no evidence of what has been achieved or whether money was spent wisely, they said. Instead, the state has thrown money indiscriminately into the Felix issue in an attempt to have the federal consent decree lifted — not as a way to improve special education in Hawaii, they said.

"I still haven’t heard anything compelling that would cause me to pull back from the findings," said Richard Gelles, co-director of the report and a consultant with the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

State Auditor Marion Higa said she stands by the report. "No doubt the findings and the recommendations are going to be controversial," Higa said. "We will tell you as we see it."

Special-education spending has increased 500 percent since 1992 and is estimated at more than $700 million over the next two years. Ira Schwartz, dean and director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy, said that under the present method of dealing with special education, Hawaii could be spending $900 million per budget cycle before the federal consent decree is lifted. "I think in the haste to make things available, the system was not put together carefully," Schwartz said.

But State Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu told legislators they shouldn’t be "distracted by the noise of negative rhetoric."

The state has made significant progress since the fact-finding for the report was conducted last spring, LeMahieu said. While 41 percent of the school system’s complexes — high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools — are in compliance with the Felix consent decree now, he said that a total of 60 percent should reach compliance within the next two weeks. None were compliant last year.

LeMahieu and Deputy Attorney General Russell Suzuki also took issue with the report’s finding that the state’s definition of a "Felix-class" student is too broad and is causing the state to overspend on special education. Suzuki reminded legislators that the federal court set the definition.

Legislators from three House and Senate committees peppered the report’s authors with questions, most of them dealing with one overarching issue: how?

"I want to get to the core of the issue," said Rep. Dennis Arakaki, D-28th (Kalihi Valley, Kamehameha Heights). "How do we get the kids access to the appropriate services they need?"

Among several suggestions, the authors said special-education services should start with the lowest cost, least invasive treatment and then escalate if needed.

"Children are getting six sessions of therapy followed by six sessions of therapy followed by six sessions of therapy," Gelles said. But nothing in their files indicate if the therapy is working, he said.

Health Department Director Bruce Anderson said there is accountability in the special-education system. "I think it’s frankly wrong," Anderson said of the audit’s finding. "I don’t know anyone in our office that isn’t asking themselves every day, "Are these services working?’"

Rep. Ken Ito, D-48th (Kaneohe,) chairman of the House Committee on Education, said teachers and parents are growing weary of the implementation of Felix. Even legislators are frustrated. "I’ve been here six years," Ito said. "It’s like being in a circle."

The Felix consent decree stems from a 1993 federal class-action suit for students, including Jennifer Felix of Maui, that accused the state of violating federal laws requiring adequate services related to the mental health and education of special-needs children. The decree requires the state Department of Education and Department of Health to better identify special-education students who also need mental health services, and to treat and educate them in the "least restrictive environment."

In May 2000, U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra found the state in contempt for not improving services as he had ordered. The state now faces a December deadline.

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