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Hawaii Settles Lawsuit on Illegal Age Limit for Special Education

Nearly 500 students with disabilities in Hawaii are eligible for compensatory education or related services because the state cut off their special education services too early. 

The state has set aside $10.2 million as part of a settlement of the 5-year-old case. About $8 million of that will be available for students, who have until 2020 to spend the money to which they are entitled.

The case stems from an age cap that Hawaiian lawmakers had placed on public school eligibility. 

In 2010, state officials passed a law,  Act 163, that barred access to public school for students who were 20 at the start of the school year. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that services must be available until a student turns 22, unless doing so would run counter to state law. 

Opponents of the policy said that the Hawaii Department of Education—which runs the state's sole district—had created a disciminatory cap. Older students without disabilities were permitted to enroll in the state's Community Schools for Adults program, which is aimed at students ages 18 and older who want to earn high school equivalency certificates. 

But those community schools specifically did not serve students with disabilities, meaning that older students with disabilities had no option to continue public education. In 2013, a federal appeals court agreed, in E.R.K. v. Hawaii Department of Education, that the age cap violated federal law. 

"Act 163 makes some 20-year-old and all 21-year-old students ineligible for public education in Hawaii," Judge D.W. Nelson wrote for the panel. "For disabled students, the Act functions as an age limit on eligibility for IDEA services."

Students can receive up to $20,000, according to the terms of the settlement. Meredith Miller, one of the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs, told the Associated Press that students can use the money to pay for occupational services and therapy, adaptive equipment, GED support, community college classes, and job and independent life skills training and education.


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