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Handful of special education bills are moving forward in Oregon Legislature

The Oregon House of Representatives convene at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, March 20, 2023.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
The Oregon House of Representatives convene at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, March 20, 2023.

Several bills introduced this legislative session would mandate better services for students with disabilities, but some have already died.

Several bills moving through the Oregon Legislature this week aim to offer better support for students with disabilities in Oregon.

One bill, Senate Bill 575, would create a statewide education plan for students who receive special education services. The proposal is similar to legislation that created statewide plans for Indigenous students, Black students, Latinx students, and students who identify as LGBTQ+. It’s on the docket for a work session on Thursday.

Another bill, Senate Bill 758, would require school districts to respond to parents of children with disabilities in a more timely way and allow school employees to speak up about policy violations related to special education. The Senate education committee moved that bill onto the Senate floor on Tuesday, with a recommendation to pass it.

Both bills signal more support for students who receive special education services and their families at a time when students and staff have struggled more than usual. Distance learning and the rocky return to in-person school have presented special challenges for everyone involved in special education. Some students have not received special education services or academic support, while staff struggles to address increased needs.

In addition to other bills moving through the Legislature, these two special education-specific bills call for stronger enforcement and accountability from the Oregon Department of Education.

“When we look at students with disabilities, I think that we are starting to see that there are some areas that have to be focused on, things that were exacerbated through the pandemic, and that have come to light in trying to solve some of those issues,” said Christy Reese, executive director of FACT Oregon, a nonprofit serving people with disabilities and their families.

One bill includes a pay increase for staff who work with students with disabilities, a sign of the difficult time schools have had filling critical positions. Another bill would require access to student records for any staff member working directly with that student, including classified employees like paraeducators.

Senate Bill 819A ensures equal access to a full school day for all students. It passed the Senate earlier this month and currently remains in the House Education committee with no meetings scheduled. A workgroup has been privately meeting to discuss the bill.

But the bill is not moving fast enough for Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, a chief sponsor of the bill. The effective date in the proposed legislation was listed as March 27, 2023 — this past Monday. She said she’s “frustrated” that students who haven’t had access to school may not be back this year.

“[Senate Bill] 819, at its core, is about letting kids go to kindergarten and first grade and second grade in 2023,” Gelser Blouin said. “And it should not be an uphill battle.”

A June 2022 report found 986 Oregon students were on an abbreviated school day in the 2019-2020 school year. That report is part of anongoing court case against the Oregon Department of Education for failing to give some students a full day at school.

Senate Bill 819A has faced pushback from statewide organizations overseeing school boards and school administrators.

In testimony opposing SB819A and other special education-related legislation, the Oregon School Boards Association called the bills “incredibly challenging” for school districts, saying “some parts of the bills would fundamentally move rights [to the state] and could put Oregon out of sync with federal special education law,” or lead to more state control over school districts.

Association officials are part of the workgroup of about 30 “education advocates” meeting to discuss the bill. They say the workgroup is meeting on Thursday to figure out how they can find solutions to make the bill work.

Officials from the Coalition of School Administrators declined to speak about the bill this week, citing ongoing discussions that are “sensitive in nature.”

Other bills face overwhelming support from school administrators and parents alike. House Bill 2895 would remove a cap on the State School Fund, the main funding source for Oregon school districts, for money directed toward students with disabilities. Current state law says funding for students with disabilities “may not exceed 11% of a district’s” enrollment.

In Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest school district, 15.6% of students receive special education services.

Administrators and teachers in the district called for the cap to be removed in order to serve more students.

“The 11% cap on state funding for special education services is something few other states do, and it feeds inequitable outcomes for both students and districts,” shared PPS Chief of Student Support Services Jey Buno in testimony supporting HB2895. “It leaves all of us – but especially smaller districts – with an impossible choice: meet all students’ needs with the funds you have, or arbitrarily prioritize a subset of students.”

Portland Association of Teachers president Angela Bonilla agreed, pointing out that even Oregon’s statewide percentage of students receiving special education services — 14% — is higher than 11%.

“Right now, the state school fund only provides additional funding up to 11% of the student population. This causes a disparity which hinders our ability to provide the services our students need,” Bonilla said in her testimony.

Parents, mostly from the Portland metro area, also shared their stories in support of the legislation.

Portland parent Noelle Studer-Spevak said her family had faced long wait times and high costs for disability testing. She attributed her family’s challenges to a lack of consistent access to services between public schools.

That bill passed out of the House education committee on Wednesday.

Come next year, Reese with FACT Oregon hopes that students with disabilities in Oregon will be better off in their schools, that they may get to go to school for more than 25 minutes and that schools may have more resources or staff available to serve them.

“I hope that we come out with a solid path forward for all students in the state,” Reese said. “That may sound very grandiose, and I hope that all of the work in this session really elevates the need for increasing outcomes for all of our students, even those who are most marginalized, which includes students with disabilities.”

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Elizabeth Miller is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Elizabeth is an Ohio native and a graduate of Baldwin Wallace University.