A Hawaii law that bars special-needs students 20 years of age or older from attending public schools violates federal law, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General said the state has yet to decide how it will respond, but the opinion filed Wednesday could mean that thousands of additional special-needs students would be eligible to stay in public schools.

Hawaii is one of just three states to cap public special education services at an age younger than that stipulated by the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which requires states to provide a “free appropriate public education” to all children with disabilities from age three until they turn 22.

That’s because Hawaii takes advantage of an exception in the federal law that allows states to set their own age limits on special education services if they apply the same restrictions to general education students, too. In 2010, the Legislature enacted Act 163, which restricts both special and general education students from enrolling in public school at age 20.

“But it’s not like we’re in a lot of company here,” said Hawaii Disability Rights Center Executive Director Louis Erteschick, who suggested that while the law may save the state money in the short-term, it shortchanges students on two years of free education that is often critical in their development. “We shouldn’t be trying to skimp on paying for those services.”

The class-action lawsuit, which was originally filed in federal court by a group of parents and the Hawaii Disability Rights Center in 2010, says that the state statute violates IDEA and other laws by denying public education to special-needs students who are 20 and 21, while offering it to adults without special needs at 10 adult education schools. The adult schools grant high school diplomas through the GED program, in addition to some other services, and are open to any student 18 years or over who hasn’t graduated from high school.

“If Hawaii legislators wish to shut the door to students once they turn 20, that is their prerogative — but they must shut them to all students, regardless of disability,” appellate judge D.W. Nelson wrote in Wednesday’s opinion.

Currently, she noted, “In Hawaii’s two-track system, nondisabled students between the ages of 20 and 22 can pursue the diplomas that eluded them in high school, but students with special needs are simply out of luck.”

The case, according to Nelson, ultimately rested on whether the schooling offered at the Community Schools for Adults is comparable to education available in public high schools. If so, that would mean Hawaii special-needs students 20 years or older are also eligible for public education services.

The Hawaii Department of Education argued that the adult school education isn’t comparable, pointing to differences between conventional high schools and the adult education programs. But that wasn’t enough to convince the appeals court that the state law discriminates against special-needs adults.

“In light of the variety of specialized secondary education the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] makes available to disabled students, it is simply implausible that the phrase ‘free public education’ … refers narrowly to a ‘conventional’ high school curriculum,” Nelson wrote.

(The appeals court also sided with federal court rulings in favor of the state on two other claims related to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.)

Anne Lopez, special assistant to the Attorney General, said the state is in the process of reviewing the appellate court’s decision.

She declined to estimate how much the lawsuit might cost the state, noting that her office has yet to decide how it will respond to the opinion.

The DOE couldn’t immediately provide estimates as to how much it would cost the state to expand special-needs services for students in their early 20s.

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