HONOLULU - A federal appeals court gave Hawaii's special education students a victory Wednesday by ruling the state must provide public schooling to disabled students up to age 22.
The opinion from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says a Hawaii statute setting an age limit on special education violates federal law.
"It's totally groundbreaking," said Louis Erteschik, executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center. "This issue has never been addressed by any court in the United States before."
Hawaii enacted a law in 2010 that made students older than 20 ineligible for public school, prompting a class-action lawsuit by four disabled students, their parents and the Hawaii Disability Rights Center. The plaintiffs argued that because Hawaii offers adult community schools, the state is running afoul of a federal law requiring states that provide an education to students 19 to 21 years old to also offer special education for those who are the same ages.
Hawaii's network of adult community schools allows adults to earn a high school diploma. The state Department of Education argued that the state-funded adult schools can't be considered public education because they're different from "conventional" or "traditional" secondary schools.
After a one-day bench trial, the district court ruled in favor of the Education Department, and the plaintiffs appealed.
The appeals court's opinion has national significance because Hawaii is one of two or three states whose age limit for special education is under 22, said Jason Kim, a San Francisco attorney who argued the case before the appeals court.
The extra year or two of special education could mean the difference for someone becoming a lifelong dependent of government assistance or gaining skills to help become employed and self-sufficient, Kim said.
"I'm really thrilled on behalf of the many, many students with disabilities who could benefit from getting additional education," Erteschik said. "Those two more years could be very pivotal for some children."
The state attorney general's office was reviewing the decision Wednesday, said spokeswoman Anne Lopez. "After the review has been completed, the deputy attorneys general representing the Department of Education will meet with the DOE to determine how to proceed," she said.
"Now that potentially you have two more years of education for every special education student in the state, that adds up to a lot of money," Kim said, adding that he hopes the state doesn't reconcile that by limiting adult schools to those who are 22 and older.