Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Felix case is
dismissed, but education
legacy continues

State officials say that parents
can now play the role of watchdog

Twelve years after it sparked a systemwide transformation of the state's special-education programs, the landmark case of Jennifer Felix has been officially dismissed.

But state officials said yesterday its legacy of equal and appropriate education opportunities for the disabled remains.

"This is not the end of the journey. In many ways it's just the beginning. Our obligation is continuing and will continue," said Attorney General Mark Bennett.

The case was officially closed Friday under a plan approved more than a year ago by U.S. District Judge David Ezra, who noted significant progress made by the state.

That frees the state departments of Education and Health from 12 years of court oversight.

But rather than eroding services, this should improve them, since those departments will be freed to use resources more efficiently, Bennett said.

"There is no plan for the state to step back in terms of meeting its obligations," he said.

A lawsuit was filed on behalf of disabled student Jennifer Felix in 1993, a time when state programs for special-needs children were drastically underfunded and short on services.

The suit contended that the state was violating the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act by failing to provide appropriate education and mental health services.

However, a comprehensive system for identifying and helping students, both inside and outside the classroom, has developed under Ezra's supervision.

The closer scrutiny has enabled the state to identify more special-needs children than might have otherwise been the case, said Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto.

The percentage of public-school students classified as special-needs has thus grown to about 12 percent today from about 7 percent pre-Felix, she said.

Overall spending on special education, meanwhile, has swelled from about $75 million in 1994 to a budget of about $306 million in general fund appropriations for the 2005-06 fiscal year.

Given that legacy, not everyone is eager to see federal supervision end.

Removal of court supervision unfairly places the oversight role on parents, said Naomi Grossman, president of the Autism Society of Hawaii.

"Now parents, on their own, will have to enforce accountability. But many of them come from different cultural backgrounds and don't know the law or what their rights are," she said.

However, the state feels confident that the system as now set up provides for ample input from parents, said Debbie Farmer, administrator of the Department of Education's Special-Education Office.

She noted that any "disagreements" over a child's treatment go to an outside arbitrator.

Hamamoto said parents today also can play the role of watchdog by accessing information now kept at their child's school which breaks down the state's spending on their child.

State teachers union President Roger Takabayashi credited the Felix case with creating more than 300 student services coordinator positions in Hawaii schools. This has helped deliver services to special-needs students in a timely fashion and reduced the burden on teachers, he said.

But he welcomed the removal of court oversight, which he said "locked" some teachers into their positions to ensure unbroken services to children. "Hopefully, this will loosen that up a little bit," he said.

The Felix case has drawn some criticism over the years for increasing special-needs funding at a more rapid clip than regular-education funding.

Though about 12 percent of Hawaii public-school students have special-needs, special education now accounts for about a quarter of the overall budget for "instructional services."

"When you think about that you have to realize that special education was behind the starting line to begin with. This was about leveling the playing field," Hamamoto said.

State Department of Education

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