Hawaii special education students will be able to receive a free public education for an additional two years beyond the state’s cutoff age of 20 which violates federal law, according to a U.S. appeals court ruling this week.

The ruling has potential impact for the nearly 20,000 special education students enrolled in the state’s public school system who could benefit from extra time to earn a diploma.

A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel said Hawaii’s law banning students older than 20 from public schools “runs afoul” of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which entitles children with disabilities to a free public education until they turn 22.

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States can opt to lower the age limit to match the cutoff for general education students, which Hawaii did in 2010 when it set the age cutoff for all students at 20.

A class-action lawsuit filed that year argued that the state allows typically developing students older than 20 to complete secondary education programs under the state-run Community Schools for Adults. The suit was filed on behalf of students with disabilities who were about to turn 20.

A federal district judge had sided with the state Department of Education, which argued those programs don’t constitute “free public education” as the federal law uses that term. The programs, according to DOE materials, offer “tuition-free opportunities for adults and out-of-school youth to earn a high school diploma.”

This week’s ruling concluded state-funded high school diploma programs for adults are a form of public education.

“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,” the court said. “In Hawaii … 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.”

Jason Kim, an attorney with the San Francisco firm Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky who argued the students’ case, said, “The result is that disabled students between the ages of 20 and 22 will receive additional services from the state, up to two years more than they were receiving.”

The ruling is expected to affect hundreds of students immediately, and thousands in the future, attorneys said.

Louis Erteschik, executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, which represented some of the students, said, “I’m very gratified by the court’s finding. It offers a lot of potential benefit to students with intellectual disabilities in this state.”

Kim said, “That additional education could be the difference for some of these students between someone who can’t meaningfully participate in the economy and someone who can get a job.” He added, “There’s certainly quite a range of abilities among the class, but I think it can make a big impact on their lives.”

Special education students make up about 11 percent of Hawaii public school students, or more than 19,600 children. The DOE spent about $362 million on special education services last school year, representing 20.5 percent of its operating budget that year.

A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, which represented the DOE, said attorneys are still reviewing the decision.

The lawsuit also alleged that the DOE’s exclusion of students with disabilities from adult-education programs constituted disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

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.

The appeals court found the plaintiffs “did not meet their burden of identifying a reasonable accommodation that would allow students with disabilities to benefit meaningfully from the adult schools.” That piece of the case was remanded back to district court.

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