Why has the number of special-education students in the islands been steadily declining over the last decade?
It’s a mystery.
The state Department of Education and advocates say there could be fewer children in need of special-education services, or a natural decline in numbers after a big push to identify — and perhaps wrongly identify — them when services for them were under federal oversight.
Public education officials say teachers are doing a better job intervening early and that schools are making better determinations about whether a student is really in need of special-education services or just a little extra help.
Advocates say that might be true, but they are also concerned some kids are being overlooked.
Whatever the reason, the declines are worth noting.
Since 2004 the number of special-education students in Hawaii has dropped 16 percent — or by 3,721 students — to 19,426. Youth with special needs now account for about 11 percent of public school students, from 13 percent in 2004-05. That is still much higher than the numbers seen before the Felix consent decree. In 1993 the 11,692 special-education children in Hawaii made up 6.5 percent of students.
Nationally, there are 6.6 million students covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The national figure has declined by 1 percent in the last five years. Special-education students account for 13 percent of all public school students nationwide.
Federal officials note that Hawaii is one of several states seeing declines in special-education youth. All those states are reporting that educational interventions have cut special-education referrals.
Still, state education officials and advocates say the decline of special-needs youth in Hawaii should spur some heightened monitoring to make sure students who are eligible are being brought into the IDEA pipeline early.
Ronn Nozoe, schools deputy superintendent, said he is not too concerned about the decline and is confident in teachers’ abilities to spot students who are struggling and figure out whether they should be tested. "I know people have floated the idea, ‘Oh, Hawaii is under reporting.’ That’s far from the truth," he said. "Schools are really trying hard, and teachers are real advocates for the kids."