Court rules against special education age cutoff

Photo of high school building.
Free Public Education protected in Hawaii

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit struck down a Hawaii law that cut off special education services at age 20, while allowing other students to pursue a separate adult-education program, at the public’s expense, for an additional two years.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to provide a “free appropriate public education” for students between ages 3 and 21. However, states do not have a duty to provide FAPE for students ages 3-5 and 18-21, if it would be inconsistent with state law or practice.

Under Act 163, passed by the Hawaii legislature in 2010, the state eliminated special education services for students once they reach age 20, with an exemption for students attending so-called Community Schools for Adults, which provide predominantly vocational training. The law prompted a class-action lawsuit by the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, which was unsuccessful at the district court level.

Hawaii argued that the exemption was warranted because these programs were qualitatively different from regular education programs. The 9th Circuit disagreed and overturned the district court decision, finding that the state was violating the IDEA, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, by providing FAPE to some students, but not students with disabilities.

“In light of the variety of specialized secondary education the IDEA makes available to disabled students, it is simply implausible that the phrase ‘free public education’…refers narrowly to a ‘conventional’ high school curriculum,” the court stated.

As a result, the state must either provide FAPE to all students through age 21, or to none.

“If Hawaii legislators wish to shut the door to students once they turn 20, that is their prerogative—but they must shut them to all students, regardless of disability…In Hawaii’s two-track system, nondisabled students between the ages of 20 and 22 can pursue the diplomas that eluded them in high school, but students with special needs are simply out of luck,” the court stated.

Hawaii Disability Rights Center is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.