Children in Oregon who cope with disabilities have not consistently received the necessary access to educational services and support, according to an audit by Secretary of State Bev Clarno.

“Children who experience disabilities deserve the supports they need to be successful in school,” Clarno said. “While currently, the coronavirus pandemic has created many challenges, it is important that our children with disabilities are not left behind.

The Oregon Department of Education said there were more than 80,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade with disabilities during the 2018-19 school year. This didn’t account for those too young to be in kindergarten.

Learning disabilities were most common among students, followed by communication disorders, health impairments, autism, emotional disturbance, intellectual disability and physical impairment.

Children under the age of 3 received adequate care in 33.4% of all cases, according to the audit. Children with low level needs in Early Childhood Special Education programs received adequate care 61.6% of the time, medium needs were met 6.2% of the time and high need children received adequate service in 0.7% of all cases.

Special education services are delivered through school-age programs, Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education. While some schools have their own staff to help with special needs, Douglas Education Service District provides EI/ECSE contractors throughout the county.

Rural districts face additional challenges such as the availability of special education teachers and other professionals, according to Clarno.

Oregon schools receive double the state funding for students with disabilities. However, there is a cap at 11% of the student population. The majority of Oregon school districts, 80%, surpassed this cap.

The Oregon Audits Division made 13 recommendations to the Oregon Department of Education, which agreed on six of those, partially agreed on three and disagreed with four.

A letter from Director of the Oregon Department of Education Colt Gill said disagreements were largely due to the impact of COVID-19.

“Some of our responses to the auditor’s recommendation will be contextualized within the economic downturn,” Gill wrote. “In addition, economic forecasting will force shifting priorities as ODE continues to support schools and districts to deliver educational services to Oregon students during pandemic lockdowns amidst economic losses.”

When it came to defining a reference population to identify which regions are disproportionately impacted, the department of education said it was a good idea but would require “additional resources during an anticipated budget reduction time period.” The same argument was used on identifying data sets to determine whether contractors are over- or under identifying children from historically underserved races or ethnicities,; and offering training or professional development on culturally-competent pre-referral identification techniques at times and locations that are accessible throughout the state.

The two parties disagree on the following: developing of a statewide strategic plan for special education services, determining which districts have difficulties hiring and retaining staff, developing a plan to provide data, guidance, and resource to education service districts and school district on the specific need in their region and improve retention; and beginning the process to develop and implement a statewide system for individualized education plans modeled after existing plans in other states.

The organizations agreed on: providing additional technical assistance to EI/ECSE contractors for expanding into areas with child care and primary care shortages, documenting efforts to increase the number of children receiving services in child care deserts, reporting to the Legislature on any remaining gaps in funding necessary to met targets in the adequate service model, requiring contractors to report to ODE on the coordination of the transition of children receiving services; working with contractors to monitor and improve the process for facilitating coordination of the transition into school-age programs and presenting the recommendation to the System of Care Advisory Council.

Sanne Godfrey can be reached at sgodfrey@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4203. Follow her on Twitter @sannegodfrey.

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