Bipartisan proposal would ensure students with disabilities get equal class time

Parents testified before the Senate Education Committee about schools denying their children class time and quality instruction

By: - February 8, 2023 1:26 pm

Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, speaks on the Senate floor in 2022. This week she proposed bipartisan legislation that would ensure students with disabilities get equal class time and quality instruction as their peers without disabilities. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Some Oregon students with disabilities have been denied access to learning opportunities and class time that is guaranteed under state and federal law, parents say.

Several spoke at a meeting of the state Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, and several more submitted written testimony in advance, outlining the lengths they had gone to get their children even a few hours of school time each week.

To address these inequities, Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, has proposed legislation to clarify the rights these students have to their full school day with a licensed instructor. The proposal, which has bipartisan backing, would give the Oregon Department of Education and the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission the power to investigate and sanction districts and superintendents that do not comply. 

Children with disabilities in more than 70% of Oregon school districts have been put on shortened school days at some point, Jake Cornett, executive director of the nonprofit Disability Rights Oregon, told lawmakers.

Senate Bill 819 

Under federal law, students with disabilities are entitled to a “free and appropriate public education,” that guarantees them the right to equal educational opportunities and to be educated with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate. 

Senate Bill 819, which includes Gelser Blouin and six other senators as chief sponsors, including Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend; and Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego; would clarify that language. It would specify that students with disabilities are guaranteed to receive full-time instruction with a licensed teacher or a classified staff acting under a licensed teacher. It would mandate that if a school wants to give a student with a disability a shortened school day or days, the parent or guardian would have to consent. Currently, a school can send a child home or put them on shortened school days for an indefinite period without the agreement of a parent or guardian.

One parent testified that earlier this school year, her son with a disability was taken out of his classroom as the district worked to place him in a setting with more one-on-one care that would be safer for him.

District officials told the mother it would take two weeks to place her son.

“It’s now been three months,” she said. “We agreed to the placement only because we thought we could get more support. He has not been in school since October.” Chelsea Rasmussen, a mother from Grants Pass, told lawmakers her daughter, who is medically fragile and nonverbal, though communicative, was denied schooling because the district lacked appropriate staff. Her daughter was put on shortened days and even weeks during the spring of 2022. This year she is being homeschooled.

“She continually shows me videos online about school and the things that she wants to learn,” Rasmussen said of her daughter. “She sits by the door with her communication device pressing the buttons ‘go’ and ‘school,’ and cries when she’s told that she cannot attend at this time.”

Proposal includes discipline

Under the legislation, if a student’s access to school were not restored within a week of a parent or guardian petitioning the district to put the student back in class, the Oregon Department of Education and the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission could investigate and discipline the superintendent for misconduct and neglect under the law. 

The only opposition to the bills came from the Oregon School Boards Association and the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators. A lobbyist for the school administrators coalition told the senators that special education directors are concerned that parents could refuse to have their child placed on a shortened school day, even if it were unsafe or the school lacked staff to provide proper care, or if the child were taking medication or getting medical treatment that made a full school day untenable. 

A lobbyist for the school boards’ association, Richard Donovan, testified in writing that the bills would move investigation rights from school districts to the state education department, which he said could be costly. 

The education department’s director, Colt Gill, submitted neutral testimony, agreeing in part with Donovan’s concern. 

“ODE would require additional resources to implement the investigations required by this bill,” Gill wrote. But, he said, the ultimate goal of the agency is to ensure every student has an inclusive and meaningful education. 

“The concept behind this bill moves Oregon closer to this goal,” he wrote.

The bill resurrects Senate Bill 1578 from last year’s short session. It died on the Senate floor after Gov. Kate Brown told Gelser Blouin there wouldn’t be enough time to vote on it. 

Gelser Blouin said she is waiting on a records request filed months ago with the department of education that might illuminate why the agency, education groups or other politicians might not have wanted it passed at the time. 

The education department most recently told her it would cost $5,000 to fulfill the records request, she tweeted this week. 

Gelser Blouin said she wants to get her latest bill to Gov. Tina Kotek to sign by the beginning of spring break so students who have been denied weeks and even months of class time this school year can resume their education like other students.

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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.