Tuesday, January 12, 1999

compliance may
hinge on funding

But the governor's budget
would cut education officials'
request by a third

By Crystal Kua


Promptly getting special-needs students help and meeting a federal mandate are the goals of a Department of Education plan publicly discussed in detail for the first time yesterday.

But the success of the plan could hinge upon the financial response of the Legislature.

The department's Action Plan for the Provision of Services to Children with Disabilities -- also called the Felix Action Plan -- was discussed during the school board's special programs committee meeting.

"What we intend to do here is to get more assistance into the schools and to work with parents to identify the services and programs that children need and to get them into these programs in a timely, efficient fashion," said Doug Houck, department director of program and support development. "We need to get the process working better."

The plan is in response to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by Jennifer Felix and other children, alleging the state failed to provide adequate education, mental health and other services to schoolchildren with special needs. The state agreed to improvements in a 1994 consent decree and has until June of next year to comply with requirements of that federal mandate.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra has said that failure to comply would lead to sanctions against the state.

The department's action plan, completed Dec. 15, is different from previous corrective plans because this plan places all the "current expectations" of the court in one document, focusing the department on compliance, Houck said. "We have a consistent, current standard for all the schools."

The plan includes 60 benchmarks and a deadline for meeting each goal.

For example, one benchmark calls for a plan for training in the area of autism by March 1999.

Linda Colburn, the state's Felix operational manager, told the committee that the action plan has been called cogent, coherent and focused.

But Colburn said the court master has indicated that if any of the benchmarks are not met, the state could be in violation of the court mandate and trigger a court hearing.

Houck said the plan's success could depend on how much funding is provided by the Legislature.

The department proposed $28.2 million for the first year of the biennium and $33.7 million for the second year for Felix budget items. The governor's budget, however, includes 35 percent less than the department's requested amount.

"The budget process right now is crucial," Houck said.

For example, the governor's budget excludes funding for counting special-education children who are in a regular education class. "That's necessary to provide assistance or funding," Houck said.

The budget also calls for 75 student services coordinators, new positions, to help with paperwork and provide other Felix-related assistance.

Kaye Kroehler, chairwoman of the Hawaii State Teachers Association special-education committee, told committee members that support in the classroom is essential.

"It's the general-education classroom that's being impacted just as much as the special-ed teacher," she said. "When it comes down to the school level that we make sure that that support really does alleviate those who are working with the children."

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