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

Excessiveness on Felix cannot replace neglect

After years of doing too little, the state is now doing too much for young people with special education needs.

That, at any rate, appears to be the implication of the latest look at the state’s progress on the so-called Felix Consent Decree. That decree came out of a 1993 class-action lawsuit that claimed the state had failed to provide adequate mental health, education and other services to special-needs students.

The state agreed to improve services up to a certain level within six years. It failed to meet that deadline and is now under the gun to bring service levels up to par or face a potential takeover by the federal courts.

The latest report from state Auditor Marion Higa says that the rush to improve special-education services has produced a flood of new clients and new services. The audit suggests the state is over-providing in some cases and is admitting students who may not technically qualify for Felix-related help.

School Superintendent Paul LeMahieu acknowledges there may be some students getting service beyond what they truly need, but he says the overall level of special-education service in Hawaii is just now approaching national norms.

That may be so. But the auditor’s report goes to the heart of the state’s failure in providing federally mandated special-education services. Because it dragged its feet for so many years, it has been forced to play a hurried game of catch-up.

It is similar to the case of a nation forced to go suddenly into war without adequate time to rationally build from a peacetime to a wartime footing. That exercise is bound to produce waste and mistakes.

State lawmakers have been horrified by the budget implications of the Felix decree and are struggling to find ways in which costs can be brought under control.

One way that can happen is for the Education Department and the Health Department to work more closely on the goal of not simply servicing special-education students, but servicing them properly.

While new teachers and new services are being added, it is imperative that standardized rules, standard cost-accounting and standard qualification guidelines be developed.

Having the most expensive special-needs program in the nation is not what will impress the federal court. What the court wants — and what every parent of every special-needs child deserves — is a program that is fair, consistent and committed. Over-diagnosing and wasteful or excessive treatment are no more acceptable than neglect.

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