The Hawaii Department of Education, for the fifth year in a row, has fallen short of meeting requirements of a federal law governing special education services for school-aged children with disabilities.

The DOE needs assistance implementing Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act based on its annual performance report, according to a June 20 letter from the U.S. DOE’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services to Hawaii School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.

The designation means Hawaii requires technical assistance to improve performance results for children with disabilities. In January, a monitoring and support team from a federal office visited the state to offer support in boosting math and reading outcomes for special ed students and making Hawaii’s state improvement plan more effective.

Board of Education meeting. Catherine Payne .
The Hawaii Board of Education is expected to discuss a timeframe to implement recommendations from a state special education task force at its meeting Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A “needs assistance” designation is not the worst category a state can fall into in terms of meeting requirements of IDEA Part B, which authorizes formula grants to states to help them provide a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for kids with disabilities ages 3 to 21.

At least 23 states have required assistance for two or more consecutive years. The feds also determine if a state meets the requirements of IDEA or needs intervention, at which point federal funding for special ed services would be at stake without a corrective action plan or compliance agreement.

“It’s not an uncommon thing for states to be in this predicament,” said Susan Rocco, a staff member with the Special Education Advisory Council. “It forces them to get technical assistance and make an effort to do better.”

Despite the light tap on the wrist of this latest finding, special education advocates say Hawaii’s outcomes for special ed students have remained stagnant over time. Its latest classification is also based largely on compliance with certain broad indicators, rather than a solely results-oriented framework.

While Hawaii scored 90% compliant in things like reporting “timely and accurate state data” and undergoing “timely initial evaluations,” it scored only 41% in terms of tangible outcomes.

“We are in the lower third of states in academic performance and that hasn’t changed over time. (The state’s) focus on vulnerable populations … is moving at a snail’s pace,” said Rocco, whose group serves as an advisory panel to assist the Hawaii DOE with meeting the needs of children with disabilities.

In its latest annual report, SEAC found that Hawaii’s special ed students scored lower in math and reading than the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Performance and that the gap between special ed students and general students was wider than the national average.

Based on 2017 data, only 14% of fourth graders with disabilities scored basic or above in reading on the NAEP, compared with 30% for special ed students nationally. For eighth graders, only 17% scored basic and above versus 35% nationally.

When it came to math, 30% of fourth graders with disabilities scored basic or above on the NAEP compared to 45% nationally among special ed students. Only 19% of eighth graders with disabilities scored basic or above compared with 27% nationally.

The challenges for special ed students are evident in other areas like high rates of chronic absenteeism, and low graduation and college-going rates.

The problems are particularly acute in the area of discipline and suspensions.

In the 2017-18 school year, special education students in Hawaii were suspended at a rate three times that of the general student population, according to SEAC. One recent analysis by the ACLU found that Hawaii’s disabled students were suspended for more days than average than other disabled students around the country and that the state had the highest arrest rate in the nation for students with disabilities.

Roughly 10% of the state’s 179,000 K-12 public school students are classified as special ed, although SEAC believes that figure is too low.

Nearly one-quarter of the DOE’s $2.1 billion operating budget is dedicated to providing special education services, while the state also receives federal grants to bolster services.

In an April 2019 update to Hawaii’s state systemic improvement plan, a long-range document that outlines plans to boost achievement outcomes for the special ed population, the Hawaii DOE pointed to improved performance in specific complex areas based on things like improved proficiency in the Smarter Balanced Assessment, Hawaii’s state tests.

On Thursday, the state Board of Education is expected to vote on a proposed time frame for policy changes to support the recommendations set forth more than a year ago by a DOE special education task force.

In its May 2018 report, the task force recommended, among other things, articulating a shared vision of inclusion education, improving data collection and monitoring and expanding mentoring and networking for special education teachers.

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