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In Oregon, some students with disabilities are fighting 'an uphill battle' to go to school

A teacher uses sign language (Remy Gabalda/AFP via Getty Images)
A teacher uses sign language (Remy Gabalda/AFP via Getty Images)

Democratic state senator Sara Gelser Blouin of Oregon says parents are concerned that some children with disabilities are not getting equal access to school.

Schools implement abbreviated school day programs, she says, when they claim they don’t have adequate staffing to meet student needs. Now she has a bill making its way through the state legislative session that aims to address the issue.

“Some students don’t even get to start kindergarten with a full day of school,” she says. “They are welcomed to elementary school by being put on an abbreviated school day… that could be 25 minutes a week of online instruction and that’s it.”

Elizabeth Miller, an education reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting, says parents have been complaining about the practice for years.

“I reported on a family who moved to Idaho instead because their student wasn’t receiving the services they felt they needed,” she says. “It’s a tough situation.”

Full interview transcript

Deepa Fernandes: “A lawmaker in Oregon says the state is not meeting its requirement to provide an equal education to all children.

“Democratic State Senator Sara Gelser Blouin says she’s heard from parents that some students with disabilities are getting limited time in the classroom because schools claim they don’t have the staffing to support their needs.

“The State Department of Education says these “abbreviated school day programs” should be used rarely, when no full day school placement can meet a student’s individual needs.

“Senator Gelser Blouin has introduced legislation that aims to address the issue and she joins us now. Senator, welcome to Here & Now.”

Sara Gelser Blouin: “Thank you so much for having me.” 

Fernandes: “So, Senator, I wonder if you can begin by explaining to us this idea of a reduced day plan. It’s not that students with disabilities are getting kicked out of school for behavior, as happens in some other places. They’re actually starting school with a plan that says they will have a reduced amount. Is that correct?”

Gelser Blouin: “That is absolutely correct. These are not students that have been suspended or expelled. They are just students who have been told that the schools are not able to serve them all day.”

Fernandes: “And why is that?”

Gelser Blouin: “The districts say that they do not have the staffing or the training and that some students are just too difficult to serve in a public school. Some also say that students, because of their special learning needs, learn more if they have less instructional time. And that argument really does not make any sense.”

Fernandes: “It doesn’t make any sense. So how widespread of an issue is this in Oregon?”

Gelser Blouin: “So we know that somewhere between 1 and 2% of students with disabilities in Oregon are on an abbreviated school day program. And that accounts for about a thousand students, at a minimum.” 

Fernandes: “And what grade levels are impacted here?”

Gelser Blouin: “Most of the children are actually in elementary school: kindergarten, first and second graders. Some students don’t even get to start kindergarten with a full day of school. They are welcomed to elementary school by being put on an abbreviated school day. And that might even mean not going to school at all. That could be 25 minutes a week of online instruction and that’s it.”

Fernandes:What types of disabilities do the kids have that you’ve heard about?”

Gelser Blouin: “I have heard of students with down syndrome, children with cerebral palsy, kids that are medically fragile, kids that have autism, kids that have ADHD and kids with general intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Fernandes: “Yet federal law says all children deserve a full time education, correct?”

Gelser Blouin: “Yes. Students have had a right to the same number of hours and days as non-disabled students for decades. And I just can’t believe that, in 2023, I am actually fighting an uphill battle to allow disabled children to attend kindergarten.”

Fernandes: “Can you break down for me what your bill would do if it was passed into law?”

Gelser Blouin: “So right now, to get back in school, parents have to go through a lengthy complaint process and our State Department of Education has not been enforcing [it.] This bill simplifies that by stating that if a parent complains about this, it’s clear that they do not consent, and therefore the student needs to be returned to school within five school days. If the superintendent fails to do that, she can have a sanction on her license and the school district can start to lose funds.”

Fernandes: “This is the second year you’ve introduced a bill on this topic and there’s been some pushback. As you said, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Where is the resistance coming from?”

Gelser Blouin: “There is a lot of resistance, it seems, from the Oregon Department of Education, who has not enforced on this measure. One of the things I’m concerned about is that there seems to be an incentive for schools to shorten school days because they get to keep all of the money that is allocated to them to serve these kids full time, even if they’re only serving them a few minutes or a few hours a week.”

Fernandes: “So what’s confusing to me is you’re saying schools are getting all this money and keeping it, even though they’re not educating the children. But they’re also saying they don’t have the staff to support the children’s needs. Which would make me think that maybe if schools don’t have the staff, they need more money. Right?”

Gelser Blouin: “Well, they have money, and they are not serving them. I will always fight for more education funds. But during the pandemic, Oregon received hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic funds. School districts did not use any of those funds to support these issues, to address learning loss for kids with disabilities. It just does not appear to be a priority for either state or local education leaders.”

Fernandes: “Sara Glaser Blouin is a Democratic state senator from Oregon. Thank you so much for joining us, Senator.”

Gelser Blouin: “Thanks for having me.”

Fernandes: “The Oregon State Department of Education has not taken a position on the bill, but spokesperson Mark Siegel says they look forward to continuing to work with the legislature and stakeholders on the legislation.

“Now, to give us more of a sense of where this is all going, let’s bring in Elizabeth Miller, education reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Hey, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth Miller: “Hi Deepa.”

Fernandes: “So help us understand the Oregon State Department of Education’s stance here. Why is it that it’s not doing more to address some parents’ concerns about the use of shortened school days? What’s the context here?”

Elizabeth Miller: “Yeah, well, in Oregon, a school district’s local control of what’s going on in their local place is really big. And it’s really important to school districts because there’s 197 in Oregon. And so sometimes, if a family feels like their child isn’t receiving the services they need, that process to ask for a change starts at the local level. 

“And so families can file a complaint with the Oregon Department of Education. But, those investigations can take years. And so that’s where you see, maybe not every family wants to take that time. I reported on a family who moved to Idaho instead because their student wasn’t receiving the services they felt they needed. And so it’s a tough situation, and it’s a very time consuming situation. And the role of the  Oregon Department of Education has been a big topic of conversation because some folks here in Oregon do want the Oregon Department of Education to play a larger role in holding school districts accountable. But, we’re still kind of working it out here.” 

Fernandes: “Yeah. Now, it’s not just Senator Gelser Blouin who’s raising awareness about abbreviated school days. How long has this practice been going on in Oregon?”

Miller: “I mean, years. There’s been a lawsuit, actually, that was filed in 2019 and a couple of years ago became a class action lawsuit. So that shows you this is not a new problem. It is not just on one school district or a couple of school districts. It’s a statewide thing. You know, for this bill, Senate Bill 819, there was some data pulled from Fact Oregon, which is an organization here, about how many calls they received about shortened school days. And for the 2019-2020 school year, they received a thousand requests for information or support about shortened school days. That doesn’t mean that a thousand Oregon students had a shortened school day, but that just goes to show that there’s a lot of school districts maybe using this.”

Fernandes: “I have to say, Elizabeth, I myself am the mother of a student with a disability, and it’s shocking to me to hear that this is happening in Oregon. You shared some audio with us from a recent hearing on the issue. Fawn Dietz of Junction City is the parent of two school aged children who are not in local schools. Dietz shares how abbreviated school days are impacting their son.”

[Soundbite of Fawn Dietz]: “When’s the last time you saw a fourth grader dive into algebraic calculations? Light up when he talks about astrophysics? And choose to work on quantum theory? I’m privileged to witness this every day. This is the same child who’s been unable to access his education through his residential district.” 

Fernandes: “Elizabeth, what else do we know about how widespread these shortened school days are?”

Miller: “I think we know that it affects a lot of students here in Oregon and having that shortened school day, you know, the majority of shortened school days in Oregon happen in elementary school. And so I think there’s a lot of questions about how that impacts students as they move through their educational career.”

Fernandes: “And just finally, what other pushback are you hearing to this legislation to address the issue?”

Miller: “I think there’s some concern from state organizations, from local folks, that there could be some issues with [the] cost of a bill like this moving forward and how much it will cost school districts. And going back to that local control – what the control and oversight at ODE might look like in Oregon, if this bill passes. I think that’s a big concern from folks.” 

Fernandes: “We’ll continue to follow this. Elizabeth Miller is an education reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thanks, Elizabeth.”

Miller: “Thanks for having me.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Locke also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.