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Wednesday, January 24, 2001

2001 Legislature

debates school

But a state attorney says
the Constitution would
prohibit vouchers

Audit of special-students program

By Crystal Kua

They may not end up calling it the "V" word, but the controversial concept of school vouchers -- using public money to pay for private school tuition -- will be taken up by state lawmakers in one form or another this session.

"Vouchers sort of is a bad word and maybe that's not the word -- it's more like alternative service," said state Sen. Norman Sakamoto (D, Moanalua).

But a state lawyer said yesterday that vouchers may not pass in Hawaii because they would be unconstitutional.

"The Hawaii Supreme Court in interpreting Article 10 (of the state Constitution) said ... that indeed when you use public funds you cannot use it to support or benefit a private educational institution," Deputy Attorney General Russell Suzuki said.

The debate over state vouchers came on the same day President Bush unveiled his national education agenda -- including vouchers.

The state debate occurred during a discussion of how best to serve special-needs students covered by the Felix consent decree.

The decree is a federal court mandate to improve educational and mental health services for special-needs children in public schools.

"Some parents say they want to send their kids to a specific type of treatment or school," said Sakamoto, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a joint committee looking at consent-decree issues.

In an audit that scrutinized the state's efforts to comply with the consent decree, one recommendation called for the state to assess the feasibility of providing "service vouchers" to parents of children covered by court order.

"The system does need some competition. I think parents may need some options and alternatives," said Ira M. Schwartz, dean and director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Youth Policy and the co-author of the audit. "There are resources here in Hawaii. ... They are well-respected."

The voucher recommendation was not intended to serve private schools, said the audit's co-author Richard Gelles, who is co-director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy. It was meant as a vehicle to provide service to Felix parents who wanted to purchase service outside of the public school system with some services not being school-based.

In a heavily Democratic state such as Hawaii, support for what's seen as a conservative proposal may not come easily, with some saying that vouchers take away much-needed public money from the public school system. The Hawaii State Teachers Association, for example, opposes school vouchers.

But the authors who helped state auditor Marion Higa audit the state's consent decree compliance said the negative connotation of vouchers shouldn't deter the state from exploring the idea.

"Vouchers are a volatile term, but it's not as they were claimed to be ... a crazy misinformed mainland idea," Gelles said. "It may well grow to be a mainstream idea and we would hope that the Legislature at least gives it its due rather than throw it on the scrap heap for being unconstitutional or illegal."

But Suzuki said that to allow or even look at a voucher system, the Legislature would have to propose legislation to amend or repeal the section of the state Constitution that prohibits public money from being used to benefit private schools.

Senate Republicans are proposing a tax credit to get around the constitutional roadblock.

"I certainly think it's a creative idea whose time has come. We started talking about it from a voucher perspective just as was outlined in the audit report," said Sen. Bob Hogue (R, Kaneohe). "We found out from that standpoint that there were some concerns brought out by the attorney general's office on whether the state can get involved with vouchers."

Hogue said Republicans believe income tax credits would allow some Felix-identified families to obtain these services and "opt out" of the system.

Hogue acknowledged the progress made by the departments of Education and Health, but said there are still issues that need to be tackled. "I think the Legislature can step in right now and come up with some of those creative ideas."

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