Special education classes provided by the Southern Oregon Education Service District and others around the state could become a thing of the past under legislation introduced by the House Education Committee and prompted by a situation in the Medford School District.
House Bills 2304 and 2305 are intended to make schools more inclusive of special education students who need individualized instruction. Currently, many school districts, even large districts such as Medford, contract with an ESD to provide instruction to special education students in need of individualized instruction. The classes are conducted by an ESD teacher usually in space provided by the school district.
"When kids are contracted out, they become invisible," said Rep. Sara Gelser of Corvallis, co-chairperson of the House Education Committee. "They no longer have a school community."
Gelser said the impetus for the bills was a decision by Medford to place two ESD special education classrooms at its alternative campus, Central Medford High School. One of the classrooms, called STEPS and designed for students with severe disabilities, previously had been located at the South Medford High School campus, but when South's new campus on Cunningham Avenue was constructed, no space was provided for the class — even though it is composed mostly of Medford students.
She said similar situations occur around the state.
House Bill 2304 would require districts to provide self-contained special education classes at district campuses when students number six or more.
House Bill 2305 would allow only school districts with a student population of fewer than 1,000 students to contract with an ESD to provide special education services. However, larger school districts would be permitted to partner to provide and pay for services. The bills would affect every district in Jackson County, except Butte Falls, Pinehurst and Prospect.
Opponents say the bills could mean lower-quality programs for special education students and would take a financial toll on school districts, which already are faced with carving millions of dollars out of their budgets because of the state revenue shortfall.
"It definitely would add to the expenses of school districts," said Scott Perry, superintendent of Southern Oregon ESD. Perry testified to the education committee that surveys since 2005 indicate that parents are satisfied with the special education services the ESD provides.
Sandra Crews, special education director at the Southern Oregon ESD, said the bills could reduce choices for special education students and their families.
"They might not have self-contained classrooms at all for students with conditions such as autism," Crews said. "It would be really hard for districts to set something up that would be age- and disability-appropriate.
"The fear I have is it will be more costly, and school districts won't be able to provide the services," she said.
ESDs can consolidate students with similar disabilities from multiple school districts and serve them in one classroom, providing more efficiency, she said.
However, Medford School Board member Paulie Brading in written testimony in favor of the bills stated that exclusion is a problem for STEPS students in the Medford district. She said special education students at North Medford High School can attend pep rallies, athletic events, musical performances and regular education classes, while STEPS students at Central cannot, she said.
Central also has an inordinate amount of discipline referrals compared to North and South Medford high schools, she said.
"Placing one subgroup of the general student population, the STEPS class, with another subgroup of the general population, the alternative high school ... does not meet the meaning of (state law)," Brading wrote.
Law requires that students have access to courses needed to obtain a high school diploma, a modified diploma, an extended diploma or an alternative certificate at every high school and public charter school within a district. Gelser agreed that the STEPS classroom at Central is out of compliance with the law.
In a letter to Gelser, Medford Superintendent Phil Long stated that all Medford students have access to those diploma choices. He did not respond Monday to a request for an interview.
"It's more the nature of their disabilities (rather than intentional exclusion)," Crews said. "In a STEPS class, there are severe disabilities, and they really can't be learning the same curriculum as the regular high school. I think that's why they spend the majority of their time outside regular classrooms."
Jacksonville resident Delores Rubino, mother of a 19-year-old with Down syndrome, also testified in favor of the bills. She said her son, Noah, a STEPS student at South last year, was not invited to participate in South's graduation until she made a fuss about it.
"I should never have had to make an issue out of it," Rubino said in a phone interview Monday. "During testimony, I was trying to point out that the mind-set in the Medford School District in not inclusive. They were not ever thought of as the school community, and that was hurtful."
She said she was furious when the district excluded STEPS students from the new South building, she said.
"I feel we are living in the dark ages in this school district," Rubino said.
ESD and Medford officials have continued to defend the placement. They say STEPS students have classes in a renovated space and share health classes with and are mentored by Central students.