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Special-education costs rise and so do questions


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LAST UPDATED: 12:08 p.m. HST, Dec 13, 2010

During the height of the Felix consent decree, there were widespread concerns about where special-education funding was going, whether it was resulting in effective services and whether big increases in funding were sustainable.

Some state lawmakers also asked whether funding for special education was becoming too large a portion of the Department of Education's overall budget. 

Today, five years after the consent decree was lifted, those concerns have diminished.

Legislators and advocates say although big questions remain about the poor achievement and post-secondary school outcomes of special-education students, the department has made progress in outlining where special-education money is going and why.

Spending on special education accounts for about 20 percent of the Education Department's budget and has increased by nearly 40 percent, or $145 million, since 2004. During the same period, overall education spending has increased by 56 percent, or $900 million, to $2.5 billion a year.

The average per-pupil cost for a special-education student is about $24,000 annually. For general-education students the per-pupil funding is $9,559 a year.

Some advocates say they are concerned about some special-education costs, including the $5.8 million being spent this school year to send 79 special-needs children to private schools, and question whether that money would not be better used to bolster public school programs.

Among the 10 Hawaii and five mainland institutions that special-needs children attending are Kaimuki Christian School, Saint Francis School, Loveland Academy, Pacific Autism Center and Heartspring School in Kansas.

The most intensive programs can cost upward of $180,000 a year.

Hawaii sends special-needs students to private institutions when public schools cannot provide adequate services for them. And many states spend far more on private-school placement (though several states spend less).

Meanwhile, other issues remain.

The Department of Education continues to spend millions of dollars on litigation related to special education, but officials do not have a firm handle on just how much money is being funneled to settlements and other court costs.

In each of the last two school years, the department said it spent about $1 million on attorney's fees related to cases involving students with disabilities.

But the department was not able to provide year-by-year cost totals for settlements in special-education lawsuits or due-process cases. When asked for those figures, the department  said they are kept on paper at each complex.

The same process is used for the costs of sending special-needs kids to private schools here and on the mainland, though the department was able to call each complex to get this school year's totals for private-school placement.

Department spokeswoman Sandy Goya said, "At this time, expenditures data for settlements and private-school placement need to be compiled manually as these transactions from various funding sources occur at the state, complex and school level. This process is quite cumbersome and time-consuming."

She added the department is looking at ways to "expedite ... data gathering."






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