The achievement gap between Hawaii’s public school special education students and their peers is wider than the national average, partially because they are isolated more than they should be, an evaluation agency reported this week.

But that and a host of other things in the special education program are about to change.

The Hawaii Department of Education and education research agency WestEd Center for Prevention and Early Intervention shared the results of a formal review of the state’s special education program in a joint briefing before the House and Senate education committees Monday.

Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi told legislators the evaluation shows it is time to make some big changes to the way special education services are delivered in the state’s public schools. About 10 percent of the state’s 179,000 students are on Individualized Education Programs, which are supposed to ensure students with special needs receive all the services and programs they need to succeed. In 2009, the department spent $540 million, or about 22 percent of its total budget, on meeting those students’ educational needs.

Education officials sought the review in order to identify strengths and weaknesses in Hawaii’s special education program now that it has been six years since the program has been out from under the so-called Felix Consent Decree. The court-supervised agreement essentially forced the state to provide special education services so the department had to put significant resources toward revamping the program. Those changes were just a starting point, Matayoshi said.

“The question is, where do we go from there?” she said. “We are still trying to improve academic success for our students with special needs. We are looking at this as an opportunity to focus our efforts at improvement.”

Right now, Hawaii’s public school students with disabilities consistently score well below both federal targets and national averages on the annual assessment tests, according to the report.

Matayoshi said the overarching goal is to successfully include students with disabilities in regular education programs, and to close the achievement gap between students with special needs and their peers.

Changes In The Air

Toward that end, WestEd consultants will work with the Department of Education for the next seven months to help beef up special education services and fix problem areas in the program. The department also plans to assign a full-time manager to the program.

“We are grateful to have WestEd’s help, but we need someone whose life is about making these changes,” Matayoshi said.

The action plan will address everything from state-level organizational structure and school-level training, to resetting policies and expectations surrounding special ed services.

“There has been an overall lack of clarity in definitions, decision-making, processes, policies and procedures,” explained WestEd project director Debbie Benitez.

WestEd special projects director Jannelle Kubinec told lawmakers that some of the district’s policies and procedures are actually counterproductive to improving achievement for students with special needs.

For example, Hawaii places students with disabilities in “less inclusive and more restrictive environments” (isolated classrooms or groups) more often than almost any other state, even though studies show students with disabilities benefit when they interact more with their peers. Fewer than 16 percent of Hawaii students with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their time in regular education settings, compared with 60 percent of students nationally. Kubinec said this is likely because of how difficult and expensive it is to train regular classroom teachers in inclusion.

It’s also unclear, Kubinec said, who in the department is in charge of delivering special ed services and who is responsible for holding those people accountable and for enforcing federal regulations.

Kubinec said the confusion over responsibility has fiscal impacts as well. In other states, special education services are delivered by a local education agency (district) that is accountable to its own budget, and that fiscal awareness helps maximize efficiency.

With Hawaii’s unique statewide school district, “you lack a bottom line for local practice,” she said.

That means complex area superintendents and principals send students to receive services without ever thinking about the bottom line, she said, “because the state will fund it.” She recommends a local-level fiscal report to help promote transparency and accountability.

She also pointed out that the department’s lack of fiscal transparency makes it difficult for state-level specialists to identify which services are most efficient and cost-effective.

The superintendent said she suspects some of these problems developed in the rush to respond to the 1995 Felix Consent Decree.

“My perception of Felix is that it was an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Matayoshi explained. “Everyone tried to help and pitch in without taking time stop and delegate responsibilities, so it got a bit tangled.”

She said the changes will have to be introduced gradually, especially given the strong emotions that can accompany special education needs and services. And transitioning from an isolated setting to full inclusion overnight could pose a shock to some families.

“We want to move quickly to improve services, but I think we have to move cautiously, because there are expectations built over time,” she said. “We’ve been trying to build the idea with faculty and administrators that as a policy, inclusion is a good thing. But I’m not sure with students and parents you can just turn it on and turn it off. We need to spend some time talking about the advantages of inclusion.”

Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda asked the department to prepare and share with legislators an outline of its game plan and timeline for the expected reforms to special ed services.

Read WestEd’s full 100-page evaluation below:

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