Slate of bills address unequal outcomes, opportunities for students with disabilities

The bills would require more transparency from school districts and that the state develop a plan for improving outcomes for students with disabilities

By: - March 14, 2023 6:16 pm
School busses arrive at school

Several new legislative proposals would require the state and school districts improve outcomes for students with disabilities. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Four legislative proposals would make it easier for parents to hold schools accountable for violating state and federal civil rights laws, end alternative certifications as a proxy for a diploma and require the state to develop a plan for raising educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

They would also grow post-secondary pathways for students with disabilities at community colleges around the state. 

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony about the four bills Tuesday, all sponsored by state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, a member of the committee. Most had little or no opposition.Gelser Blouin expects the bills to be scheduled for a vote in the next few days, which would keep them in the legislative mix.

Senate Bill 758 

Senate Bill 758 would require school districts be more responsive and transparent when dealing with parent complaints about civil rights violations. Currently, when a parent suspects that their child with a learning disability is not being given equal class time, or has been unreasonably restrained, they have to submit a complaint with the school district or the Oregon Department of Education. Parents have the burden of proof in such cases, but are often equipped with less legal and financial power and expertise than school districts, Gelser Blouin said.

“So the parent has to prove a negative against an entity armed with public dollars, authority and an attorney who has all of the records that the family does not have, and often does not know how to ask for because they don’t have an attorney,” she said.

Under the proposal, districts would need to provide any records related to a parents complaint within 10 days. It would also prohibit school districts from restricting or discouraging school employees and volunteers from participating in interviews related to a complaint and from reporting their own concerns to parents. It would prohibit school districts from requiring parents and employees to sign nondisclosure agreements in some situations. 

Senate Bill 992

Senate Bill 992 would end the practice of awarding students, mostly those with disabilities, an alternative certificate rather than an extended or modified diploma for completing high school. It would, however, allow districts to offer a certificate of attendance. It would also establish stricter requirements for districts in deciding when a student is eligible for modified coursework that could lead to a modified or extended diploma. 

Besides the standard diploma, some Oregon students can earn a modified diploma, an extended diploma or an alternative certification. They were created primarily for students with disabilities. 

Modified and extended diplomas – which are not general education diplomas, or GEDs – are state sanctioned and federally recognized, but alternative certifications are not, and have been arbitrarily awarded and poorly regulated, Gelser Blouin said, often leaving students with disabilities without the courses, class time and academic rigor they deserve. 

They’ve also been used discriminatorily. A report from the Oregon Department of Education submitted to the Legislature in September found that many schools were disproportionately pushing students of color toward non-standard diplomas, including alternative certificates. Gelser Blouin hopes the bill would require districts provide more detailed records of why they are putting students into modified courses and would end the practice of assigning a certificate that doesn’t hold the weight of a recognized diploma. 

Senate Bill 575

Senate Bill 575, or the Students with Disabilities Success Plan, would require the Oregon Department of Education to develop a statewide plan to increase classroom standards and educational outcomes for students with disabilities. Currently, there is no statewide student success plan for students with disabilities as there are for other groups that have experienced poor academic outcomes due to discrimination and historical practices.

It would also require that all 197 school districts establish a special education advisory council that would implement the plan and report back to the education department. Sixteen people submitted written testimony against the proposal and 11 wrote to give their support. Those opposed said such a plan would create a “one-size-fits-all” model of instruction for students with disabilities around the state. Those in support were mostly the parents of students with disabilities who expressed frustration with the lack of opportunity and limited coursework their kids experienced at school.

Senate Bill 572

Senate Bill 572 would require the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to work with Portland State University and community colleges to create post-secondary programs for youth 16- to 26-years-old who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

PSU has offered such a program since 2015, called Career and Community Studies, as part of a four-year, non-degree certificate program that offers students college-level reading, writing and speaking courses as well individualized career-path studies. During those four years, students can participate in campus life, including sports, clubs, events and campus housing. The bill would direct resources to PSU to develop similar programs with state community colleges.

A number of graduates of the program submitted testimony describing the experience of being on campus as life changing. Students felt part of a student community and as if they had greater career opportunities after. Among the 27 people who submitted testimony in support of the bill was the executive director of student services for the Hillsboro School District. Elaine Fox wrote:  “When our students leave special education, they face many ‘no’s’ from others who do not think it’s possible to attend a post-secondary program like Portland State University. The Career and Community Studies program is a game changer for our students.” 

No one submitted testimony opposing the bill.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt 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.