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E.R.K. v. State of Hawaii Department of Education

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

August 28, 2013

E.R.K., by his legal guardian R.K.; R.T.D., through his parents R.D. and M.D.; Hawai'i Disability Rights Center, in a representative capacity on behalf of its clients and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
State of Hawaii Department of Education, Defendant-Appellee.

Argued and Submitted June 12, 2013—Honolulu, Hawaii

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii David A. Ezra, District Judge, Presiding, D.C. No. 1:10-CV-00436-DAE-KSC.

Paul Alston, Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, Honolulu, Hawaii; Jason H. Kim (argued), Schneider Wallace Cottrell Brayton Konecky, LLP, San Francisco, California; Matthew C. Bassett & Jennifer V. Patricio, Hawaii Disability Rights Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

David M. Louie, Carter K. Siu (argued), and Holly T. Shikada, Department of the Attorney General, Honolulu, Hawaii, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before: Jerome Farris, Dorothy W. Nelson, and Jacqueline H. Nguyen, Circuit Judges.

SUMMARY[*]

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Affirming in part and reversing in part the district court's judgment after a bench trial in a class action, the panel held that a Hawaii statute violated federal law by establishing an age limit on public education.

The Hawaii statute, dubbed "Act 163, " barred both general-education students and students who received special-education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from attending public school after the last day of the school year in which they turned 20. The plaintiffs alleged that the state violated the IDEA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act by denying public education to special-needs students aged 20 to 21 while offering it, in the form of a network of adult-education schools called Community Schools for Adults, to students without special needs. The Community Schools for Adults were exempt from the strictures of Act 163.

The panel held that Act 163 violated the IDEA, which restricts the power of states to establish age limits on special-education eligibility in certain circumstances. In an exception to these restrictions, 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(B)(I) provides that a state's duty to provide special education does not extend to children aged 18 through 21 "to the extent that [the duty's] application to those children would be inconsistent with State law or practice . . . respecting the provision of public education to children in those age ranges." Referring to the IDEA's legislative history, the panel held that § 1412(a)(1)(B)(I) meant that Hawaii could not deny special education to disabled students aged 18 through 21 if it in fact provided "free public education" to nondisabled students in that range of ages. The panel concluded that the diploma programs offered by the Community Schools for Adults constituted free public education because they were provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge, and they involved secondary education. Accordingly, the panel reversed the district court's judgment for the State of Hawaii Department of Education on the IDEA claim.

The panel affirmed the district court's judgment for the Department of Education on the plaintiffs' disability discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, holding that the plaintiffs did not establish the existence of reasonable accommodations that would make the Community Schools for Adults generally accessible to disabled students. The panel remanded the case to the district court.

OPINION

NELSON, Senior Circuit Judge.

Are state-funded high school diploma programs for adults who never graduated from high school a form of "public education"? 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(B)(I). We conclude that they are. Accordingly, we hold that a Hawaii statute establishing an age limit on public education violates federal law, and reverse in part the district court's entry of judgment in favor of the Defendant-Appellee.

Background

In 2010, the Hawaii state legislature enacted a law, dubbed "Act 163, " barring students from attending public school after the last day of the school year in which they turned 20:

No person who is twenty years of age or over on the first instructional day of the school year shall be eligible to attend a public school. If a person reaches twenty years of age after the first instructional day of the school year, the person shall be eligible to attend public school for the full school year.

Haw. Rev. Stat. § 302A-1134(c). The law applies to both general-education students and students who receive special-education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.

The State of Hawaii Department of Education ("DOE") administers public education in the state. In addition to conventional public high schools, the agency operates a network of adult-education schools called the Community Schools for Adults. DOE materials explain that the Community Schools for Adults offer "Adult Secondary Education" in the form of "tuition-free opportunities for adults and out-of-school youth to earn a high school diploma[.]" The DOE offers two diploma programs: the General Education Development ("GED") program and the Competency Based program ("CB").

The GED program prepares students to take the GED test, a national standardized high school equivalency exam. Students who achieve adequate scores on the GED test qualify for a high school diploma if they have also completed at least one semester of high school work at either an accredited high school in Hawaii or a Community School for Adults. A high school diploma earned via the GED program permits students to seek admission to the University of Hawaii system.

The CB program is a three-semester life-skills program designed to help students become "(1) Functionally literate adults; (2) Productive and contributing citizens/community members; (3) Effective family members; and (4) Productive workers." The program emphasizes skills like household finance, civic participation, and health maintenance. To obtain a high school diploma in the CB program, students must complete all five CB courses, earn adequate scores on the various CB exams, and complete at least one "Career Goal, " such as finding a job or completing one credit of work at an accredited postsecondary institution.

The Community Schools for Adults are exempt from the strictures of Act 163. Both the GED and CB programs are open to any student 18 or older who lacks a high school diploma.[1]

These adult education programs have sparked litigation because they do not offer IDEA services to disabled students. Students who require special-education services to participate in the classroom cannot pursue diplomas in the Community Schools for Adults after aging out of public education under Act 163. But students without special needs can and do ...


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