A new policy for funding special education in Hawaii is touching off some fears it could mean dramatic cuts for some schools and the ability to provide services to disabled students.

The new formula is the result of recommendations by a task force aimed at making funding of special ed services more equitable throughout the state.

Some schools are expected to gain more resources under the plan, but others say it could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The state’s largest public employees union, which represents principals and educational assistants, is raising the alarm and advising the state Department of Education to slow down implementation of the policy, which is set to take effect in August.

Kailua Intermediate School Teacher Jimmy Lee team teaches with colleague Ms. Maldonado.
A Kailua Intermediate inclusion classroom is shown in this Oct. 2017 photo. The DOE says a new special ed funding formula will bring more transparency to the funding process. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The plan is complicated, and it should have been shared and consulted on earlier if the DOE is seeking implementation next school year,” a recent Hawaii Government Employees Association e-bulletin to members says.

Minutes from an Oct. 11 meeting at the Special Education Advisory Council, moreover, referenced a general “anxiety” among those gathered that some schools would gain and some will lose in this “effort to level the playing field and provide consistency across complexes,” according to a summary of the minutes.

But DOE officials emphasize that the new funding mechanism is not as drastic as it appears on paper.

Essentially, it moves approximately $275 million in special education dollars around to be more evenly distributed among the DOE’s 256 public schools and 37 charter schools statewide. Currently, funding is divided up and allocated to seven geographic districts based on special ed student headcount. The state’s 15 complex area superintendents then distribute this money to each of their schools in the form of teaching and educational assistant positions.

One big criticism of the current formula is that it doesn’t properly consider individualized student needs through a system of “weights” that might factor in more intensive services.

“We support the task force recommendation that when it comes to allocation of positions, it should be based on student need and student weight,” Hawaii State Teachers Association president Corey Rosenlee said, referencing a funding method in effect a decade ago.

While the teachers’ union takes the position the new formula marks an improvement from the current one, it believes it doesn’t go far enough to address the needs of special ed students.

The new policy gives money to schools directly, so they can use it as they see fit, whether it’s purchasing more classroom teachers or EA positions. It doles out a uniform amount of base funding, adds weights based on select student characteristics and sets aside a reserve pool managed by the complex area superintendent to allot more money to a school based on its population of higher needs kids, a highly specialized program or being geographically isolated.

But the swift implementation of the policy means there’s still a lot of questions around the change, including what happens to those schools that may need to release or reassign some of their classroom positions due to the reallocation of resources.

“There is a detailed process the Department follows when a teacher is staff reduced,” DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers wrote in an email. “Generally, as long as the teacher is tenured, they will be reassigned to some other teaching position.”

The policy follows a turbulent track record in Hawaii over the adequacy of special education services.

In 1994, the state came under a federal consent decree following a lawsuit by Maui special education student Jennifer Felix. It spent $1.4 billion under the decree, including $100 million for an outside contractor to hire outsourced qualified instructors.

Today, more than 10 years after the decree officially lifted, the state faces a severe shortage of highly qualified special ed teachers to serve the thousands of students that are classified as special needs. More than 10% of the DOE student population — which totals about 179,000 — are considered special needs.

Changes At Schools

In the 2018-19 school year, Nanakuli High and Intermediate, a grade 7-12 school, was allocated 40 special education teaching positions and 26 educational assistant roles to serve its special education student population of 193.

That’s an approximate 5 to 1 student to teacher ratio and 7 to 1 student to EA ratio, or the dollar equivalent of $3.5 million — roughly $17,800 per student.

But starting in the 2020 school year, the Leeward Coast multi-level school would see its net distribution of special education funding drop by roughly $1 million to $2.4 million, making the new dollar per student figure $12,404.

Ann Mahi, the complex area superintendent for Nanakuli-Waianae, said the new method creates more equity by providing funding rather than positions. She said it had been “challenging to move employees around” when circumstances changed and that some schools might have been left with more positions than they needed.

Changes to Nanakuli High & Intermediate’s special ed funding distribution would see its base amount reduced by $1 million. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat


“This is a way to create more accountability and equity through collaborative decision making,” she wrote in an email. “Our NW principals have completed this process and we are awaiting more directions from the Office of Talent Management on how the personnel issues will be handled.”

The new funding formula doesn’t chip away at all schools’ special ed budgets. Some schools could see a bump in such dollars. Most of the funding must be spent on classroom positions.

Currently, the range of funding to each school varies widely, with some schools spending close to $30,000 per student, and others barely clearing $7,000 per student.

According to a spreadsheet detailing the changes, some schools may see their special ed funding swell by as much as several hundred thousand dollars while others could see the funding diminish by that much — or more. But under the new formula, most of these schools will fall roughly in the $12,000 per student range.

For instance, Kaimuki High, which has a special ed student enrollment of 122, stands to receive $861,000 less in special ed funding next year under the new formula, assuming it gets no additional funds from the risk pool, bringing its special ed funding from its current $19,000 per student to $12,200.

On the other hand, Royal Elementary on Queen Emma Street in Honolulu, with a current special ed student roster of 67, will stand to gain $356,000 more next school year — from $7,500 per student to $12,500.

“By using a single formula to put resources into the hands of school leaders, it provides greater predictability to those who best understand how to meet the unique needs of their students,” said Brian Hallett, interim assistant superintendent and Chief Financial Officer in Hawaii’s DOE.

All schools will get $66,000 in base funding and then more money will be added from there based on certain student characteristics and special disability needs, including any portion of the 10% reserve pool.

Complex area superintendents have been told to release half of next year’s special ed funding to schools by Dec. 1, with full allocation plans ready by next June, according to a DOE timeline.

“Is this something that actually will help out? This is a major change, to adjust the formula that gives schools resources,” said Justin Hughey, a special education teacher at Maui’s King Kamehameha III Elementary. “The question is, is this something the superintendent has done to strengthen our schools?”

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