Friday, January 12, 2007


Does DOE cutback on special needs services anticipate the end of No Child Left Behind?

The tension between the Department of Education and parents of special needs children has never abated.

In retrospect, the decade of the Felix Consent Decree did little or nothing to create trust among parents for DOE's committment to the children. Quite the opposite: with negotiations conducted almost exclusively in secret meetings (quite legal, because the talks between attorneys, Judge Ezra, the Court Monitor and the Special Master were considered of the nature of settlement negotiations), what the public saw was that the state wanted mainly to get the feds off its back and avoid the necessary expense of paying for the education of children with disabilities.

An Advertiser story this morning Some say DOE plan puts special-needs kids at risk is refreshing because it puts the ongoing problems back on the front burner. I hope that reporter Bev Creamer will continue to follow the issue.

During Felix, both the DOE and the Department of Health claimed that there were not enough professionals or paraprofessionals available to serve the children after setting up conditions, primarily by cutting services, pay, or delaying payment to agencies, which pretty much guaranteed the shortage that they would later claim as an excuse.

In many cases, parents had to scour the state themselves to find someone to provide services to the children. Is the DOE setting up the same scenario again? From the Advertiser article:
Parent Deborah Tucher who has a team of skills trainers for her 8-year-old autistic son, was in tears as she spoke of what a rate reduction would mean to her family.

"One trainer I've had for three years has just told me she can no longer live on the cut," she said. "Another has already been told by her agency they'll cut their autism services."

Before the meeting, Big Island parent Susan Wood, said: "I know for a fact our skills trainer is not going to work for $12 to $14 (an hour). He can go to the hotels and make more money."

Tina McLaughlin, president of CARE Hawai'i which serves about 120 children, said she expects a 70 percent reduction in services, while Dr. Raelyn Hillhouse, from Hawai'i Behavioral Health, expects to see an 80 percent turnover — meaning the loss of 350 to 400 paraprofessionals from her staff. Hillhouse said she expects that means her agency will no longer be able to serve from 250 to 300 of its children at the proposed rates.
The paper's headline writer has understated the extent of parent opposition. There's no longer a Felix court monitor to take reports of service cuts, but that doesn't mean that they are not happening. Every so often DOE's neglect still breaks out into the news (there was a recent story on KHNL-TV Dec 20, 2006 and another in Pacific Business Journal, but the links aren't working at present).

While Felix ended, the federal government through No Child Left Behind placed requirements on the DOE that all students, including special needs students, make measurable progress towards proficiency according to a federal timetable. There are consequences attached, including loss of federal funds. Hawaii (and many other states) are not doing so well, so school district opposition to NCLB has been constant and fierce.

But until now, the schools might as well have been protesting the Iraq war, their voices went unheard by a national government that controlled all of Congress as well as the presidency. With Democrats now in control of Congress, there is a newly envigorated movement to kill NCLB entirely since it is up for reauthorization this year. If it is not killed, schools are demanding relief from the requirements that special needs students and other disadvanteged learners (for example, those for whom English is a second language) meet current standards.

Should either happen, it will be a return to the bad old days for Hawaii's special needs children.

The DOE attack on providers' pay bears a resemblance to HMSA's cutback on doctors' reimbursements. Somehow we tolerate their expectation that professionals and other health workers will agree to live in poverty if they want to pursue their chosen professions. Both groups will, of course, either leave the state or find something else to do if pay cuts go into force. And the losers are those who require their services.

If NCLB no longer protects them, Hawaii's special needs children will be at the mercy of both the DOE and state legislature cutting back services. It may be time for Felix II. And I hope, should there be a new lawsuit, that it be done differently. Parents should establish up front that there be no secret meetings that allow the DOE and a conservative judge to drag the case on for another decade while children lose their one chance at an equal education, as the law still requires.

And what will become of the paraprofessionals who used to work with our children? I suppose they can be retrained. Repeat after me: "Do you want fries with that?"


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