Bill to empower Education Department to investigate discrimination against students gets killed

Gov. Kate Brown told the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, that there was not enough time in the current session to pass it

By: - February 22, 2022 5:06 pm

Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, speaks on the Senate floor with Sens. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, and Deb Patterson, D-Salem, watching on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

A plan to empower the Oregon Department of Education to investigate allegations of discrimination against students with disabilities was killed Tuesday by legislators because of time. 

State Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, said she was on the Senate floor when Gov. Kate Brown called to share with her that Senate Bill 1578, which Gelser Blouin authored and sponsored, was dead due to the time constraints of the current session.

The bipartisan bill had already been approved by the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 11 and was in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

“We lose bills all the time. This is different,” Gelser Blouin said in an interview. “We spent so much time talking about our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion during this session.”

Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for Brown, wrote in an email that based on the governor’s conversations with legislators, it was clear that the bill wasn’t moving forward this session and she passed the message to Gelser Blouin as a courtesy.

Gelser Blouin does not know who made the decision to kill her proposal or why it was chosen among many.

The bill was a response to more than three dozen parents across the state who had reached out to Gelser Blouin saying their kids with disabilities weren’t getting equal class time as their peers, a violation of state and federal laws. The pandemic exacerbated teacher shortages, especially among special education teachers and paraprofessionals, which led some districts to cancel entire days of instruction each week for students with disabilities, adding up to weeks and months worth of lost class time. 

Gelser Blouin launched an online campaign called #AllMeansAll to help parents file complaints and to bring attention to the issue.

Currently, parents who believe their children aren’t getting equal class time can either file a complaint with the federal Department of Education, which can take months or years to be investigated, or with the local school district where an alleged violation took place. The district then has a responsibility to investigate and decide whether to refer the case to the state Education Department. 

In proposing the bill, Gelser Blouin wanted to make it easier for parents to report allegations of discrimination and lost class time, and to take investigations to an agency outside the school district. She also hoped to speed up the investigation process and get students back into school quickly.

Gelser Blouin said she was heartbroken to learn the bill would no longer be considered. 

Shortly after getting the news from Brown, in a brief and impassioned speech on the Senate floor, Gelser Blouin told her peers that going forward, she would be voting on bills based solely on their perceived urgency. 

“​​I have recently learned that we may be leaving some very important kinds of legislation on the table under the argument that we just don’t have time,” she said. “So I am now thinking about the legislation on which we are voting, relative to how urgent and emergent it is compared to, say, ensuring the right of children with disabilities to not continue to be denied access to school like their non-disabled peers.”

Gelser Blouin’s bill had the support of the Education Department’s director, Colt Gill, as well as leaders of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators and the Oregon School Boards Association. 

Gelser Blouin said she is confused why her seven-page bill was killed to save time, and why the issue isn’t more urgent. She pointed to the uproar from parents over the Portland Public Schools’ proposal to go to a four-day school week.

“Imagine what they would say if their student got an hour a day with an unlicensed teacher,” she said. 

Gelser Blouin held back tears talking about what would happen next.

“I don’t know what to say to these people,” she said of the families who have reached out to her for help getting their kids equal class time. 

“Your kids have a right to attend school, we know it’s being abridged and we are actively choosing to not move forward.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.