Court to end oversight of special education in 2005
By David Waite
Advertiser Courts Writer
More than a decade of federal court supervision over how the state provides public education services to mentally and emotionally disabled students is drawing to a close.
The mother of disabled student Jennifer Felix filed a lawsuit in federal court in 1993 claiming that the state had failed to comply with federal law.
The Felix case subsequently grew into a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all learning-disabled children in Hawai'i.
Lawyers for the disabled students and the state said yesterday that the state departments of education and health have made sweeping changes for the better, most notably during the past five years.
At a hearing in Ezra's courtroom, state Attorney General Mark Bennett said that the Felix lawsuit has brought about "a fundamentally better school system than we had at the time the lawsuit was filed."
The end of federal court oversight "does not in any way mean the end or termination of the state's efforts to meet its duties under federal and state laws," Bennett said.
The agreement approved by Ezra is "simply the beginning of a different phase of the state's obligation to provide services" to special-needs students, Bennett said.
At present, there are approximately 183,000 students in the state's public school system, including about 20,500 in need of special education services.
Bennett cited sections of a February report that found the state departments of education and health have demonstrated their capacity to monitor the performance of special-education programs, have put appropriate policies in place and have developed a system that is more consistent and more receptive to the needs of special-education students than it has been in the past.
Attorneys Eric Seitz and Shelby Floyd, who represent the Felix class plaintiffs, said that although not perfect, the state's public education system is vastly improved today in meeting the needs of special education students compared with a decade ago.
"We have to realize that 100 percent compliance (with the federal mandates) 100 percent of the time is not required by law or the consent decree, and is probably not achievable," Floyd said.
Today, there are in-school mental health providers, many fewer suspensions of special-education students and a "very large increase" in spending for services for special-education students, Floyd said.
"These are huge gains for the children we represent," Floyd said.
Seitz said he gets letters or phone calls every day about "success stories of children (in public schools) who were struggling but who now are thriving despite substantial disabilities."
He said he continues to have concerns about the number of open teaching positions in special education and about what he called "continuity gaps."
"But the bottom line is, we have made significant progress. We have a dramatically different system than we had just five or six years ago," Seitz said.
Ezra agreed, saying the state is now in "substantial compliance" of what the federal law requires.
"The law does not allow me to maintain jurisdiction until the state gets it perfect," Ezra said. "I wish it did, but it does not."
He called the Felix case perhaps the most difficult one he has had to wrestle with during his tenure as a federal judge.
Ezra said there were times when he was criticized by members of the Legislature for compelling the state to spend huge amounts of money to fix a faulty special education system, and he was criticized at the same time by the parents and other advocates of special-needs children for not forcing the state to do or spend more in hopes of improving things more quickly.
"I understand the pain the families of special-education children are going through in a way that some parents don't," Ezra said. "My middle daughter was born with severe birth defects and had to undergo 16 major operations, two of which lasted over 30 hours.
"I know the pain that goes with those kinds of disabilities, although my daughter is not a member of the Felix class. I know where those hearts (of families with special-educations students) are."
He said an initial draft of the plan to end court oversight called for it to cease when the Legislature's current session adjourns. But Ezra said he wants the oversight to continue through the end of the next Legislature, which is scheduled to adjourn in May next year.
"I want to make sure that no one in the state administration or the Legislature understands or believes that they could step away from their responsibility (to special-needs students) due to the state's financial situation," Ezra said.
State schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto credited the teachers, principals and other Department of Education staff members and the employees of other state agencies who worked with families to improve special-education services.
"Congratulations for demonstrating your commitment and unconditional support to provide the kind of quality educational and behavioral services to our children and youth that 10 years ago was not even a thought in our minds," Hamamoto said in a prepared statement.
Reach David Waite at email@example.com or 525-8030.