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Education

Oregon Audit: Children With Disabilities Not Getting Needed Services

Franklin High School special education teacher Mercedes Munoz starts her class by having her students repeat five "I Am" statements.
Franklin High School special education teacher Mercedes Munoz starts her class by having her students repeat five "I Am" statements.

The bottom line from the 21-page audit was straightforward: “Children experiencing disabilities are not consistently receiving the access to services and supports they are entitled to and need.”

The audit from Oregon’s Secretary of State highlights structural problems with how the state supports thousands of students with disabilities.

Officials with the Oregon Department of Education said they agree with most of the audit's recommendations, but they cited costs, different priorities and the separation between state and local roles in supervising schools as reasons that state education leaders won't pursue some suggestions. 

"Over the last eight weeks our families and educators have faced extraordinary challenges to build on the strengths and meet the needs of our state’s children during a global pandemic," Gill wrote. "Additionally, COVID-19 has impacted Oregon’s economy in unprecedented ways."

The audit found some of the biggest gaps in service appeared before children show up for kindergarten —  in early intervention programs, which are for children up to age 3, and in early childhood special education, for children between 3 and when they enter kindergarten as 5-year-olds. The audit found that only one in three eligible children got the weekly consultations they were entitled to.

For children in need of greater intervention — including so-called “high needs” children — the gap in service was even more glaring. Less than 1% of children designated "high needs" received an adequate level of service in the 2018-19 school year, according to the audit. 

The audit found that the difficulty in providing services to children with disabilities was largely based on a lack of personnel. The audit found turnover is substantially higher for special education teachers: 20.4% in 2018-19, compared to 13.7% for general education teachers. Finding and retaining qualified special education staff was particularly difficult in rural parts of the state, auditors found.  

Among systemic problems, the secretary of state's office noted that, while the state theoretically provides twice the per-student funding for students identified as needing special education, Oregon will only fund up to 11% of a district's student body as “double weight.” The audit found that in each of the last eight school years, more than 80% of Oregon school districts exceeded the state cap, meaning that at these districts more than 11% of local students had qualifying disabilities. The audit said that, while there are processes to circumvent the cap to get additional funding, “districts can be left to cover at least part of the difference and may need to use their general education budget to do so.” 

Auditors offered 13 recommendations, most of which the education department agreed with. For instance, state education officials agreed to support further efforts to identify young children with disabilities for early intervention and to better track whether children are getting necessary services. The department also supported closer monitoring of the transition into kindergarten for children with disabilities. 

But the Oregon Department of Education disagreed with four recommendations. 

State education officials said they do not want to investigate which school districts are having “the most difficulties hiring and retaining special education staff and specialists,” as auditors suggested. The education department said “hiring and retention of staff [are] firmly within local authority and control,” and said instead it would be happy to partner with districts. State education officials also disagreed with a related recommendation aimed at helping districts overcome educator retention problems. 

The Oregon Department of Education also chafed at a recommendation aimed at a “strategic plan for special education services statewide,” arguing that the suggestion “promotes separate educational experiences for students who experience disability,” rather than using special education programs to supplement the general education experience.

The Oregon Department of Education disagreed with the audit’s recommendation to build a centralized statewide system for individualized education plans for students, like the case management system for younger children. In his response, Gill said given the current state context of declining budgets and competing priorities, “the timing is not right for implementing such a system.”  

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting.