The State of Special Education in Portland: Show Me the Money

Read the first part of our series on special education here.

We spotlight record-breaking education funds approved by the Oregon legislature; teacher and staff contract negotiations; and what a pricey report on the strengths and shortcomings of Portland Public Schools’ special education department revealed.

Ginger Huizar’s entire special education team is new this year. The Atkinson Elementary Learning Center special education teacher says her Southeast Portland school’s speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, school psychologist, program administrator — even the records clerk — all left at the end of the 2022-23 school year. 

“When I see so many people leave special education — it’s hard because it’s hard on the kids,” Huizar says. “That’s what’s really heartbreaking to me is to watch that take place with our students.”

The six-year special education teacher also says her caseload is already full — a bad sign at the beginning of the year, as more children tend to get identified for services as the year progresses, she says. 

With so few staff to address so many needs, Huizar says, “We’re starting the year with a lack of services being supported as a result.”

The 2023-24 school year has the potential to be pivotal for long-standing problems in special education in Portland. With a record-breaking $10.2 billion state budget for K-12 education; long-overdue contracts for teachers, paraeducators and specialists; increasing awareness of neurodiversity; and a commitment to “equity,” some hope that Portland Public Schools will finally turn the page on decades of special education dysfunction.

Or: It could be another year in a long string of failures by a district that has been repeatedly criticized as too siloed, too segregated, too antiquated and too resistant to change. 

In August, PDX Parent shared stories from parents and district administrators on the challenges and solutions in PPS special education. In this edition, we look at how this year’s new laws will impact a district that one report called “significantly departmentalized” leading to “a lack of coherence across the system.”

Legislative Changes

More than 100 bills affecting Oregon schools were signed into law during the tumultuous 2023 legislative session in Salem. They ranged from big — like $10.2 billion big — to small. 

Administrators, teachers, specialists, parents — nearly everyone PDX Parent spoke to for this series agreed that more funding was needed for better outcomes in special education in Portland. 

The legislature’s biennial budget will be combined with local sources to add up to $15.3 billion for all 550,000 K-12 students in the state. That averages out to nearly $14,000 per student per year.

Funding in Oregon schools is based on a weighted formula and students in special education get twice as much money as a nondisabled student … up to an 11% ceiling. Many districts have higher rates of disability than that (PPS is at 15.6%), but they don’t receive the additional funding for students above 11% of the district population. House Bill 2895, sponsored by Rep. Jami Cate (R-Lebanon), would have removed the cap, but that bill died in committee this year. 

For students with particularly high needs, there is another source of state money, the High Cost Disabilities Fund. However, an April 2022 report found that because more and more students are becoming eligible, the amount of money per student has gone down by about 20%. The grants give around $2,500 extra to districts with students whose education costs more than $30,000 per year.

New Contracts

As of press time, many details of the new contracts between Portland Public Schools and its employees had not been finalized. The Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) and the Portland Federation of School Professionals (PFSP) both had their contracts expire in June 2023 without agreements in place for new contracts. 

The PFSP — which represents paraprofessionals, therapists and other school staffers — rejected a three-year contract at the end of September. The new contract for the 1,350 employees would have raised their minimum wage to $20 per hour and added cost-of-living adjustments thereafter. Negotiations were ongoing. 

The teacher’s union and the district were much further apart and appeared at press time to be headed for a strike (which has since occurred, closing all district schools). The union wanted class sizes at 25 students max, increased support for special education, more behavioral and mental health supports and about double the pay raises that the district was offering.  The district is also offering a premium — $3,000 more per year — to special education teachers. 

Huizar — who is a PAT Executive Board member, but clarified that she was not speaking on behalf of the union — says the extra money would be nice, but what they need is better working conditions. 

“Almost every (special education) teacher I know would rather have the additional person rather than the additional pay,” she says. “The $3,000 is great, but we need a smaller caseload, which means that we need additional staffing.”

Huizar says without it “we’re just going to continue on this decline that we’re on: More kids in crisis because they’re not getting the services that they need.”

SB 819

It was called “the most sweeping special education bill of the past 30 years” by the Oregon School Boards Association and the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators. Senate Bill 819 gives the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) teeth to enforce special education law. Spearheaded by Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin (D-Corvallis), the legislation requires schools to offer disabled students “meaningful access” to the same number of instructional hours as other students — even if a child has a disability that landed them in an abbreviated school day program. Unless the parents consent to the reduced schedule, they have the right to complain to ODE if their child is not being accommodated in school. The education department will then initiate an investigation and if the district is found to be breaking the rules, the agency can withhold state dollars. 

Prior to SB 819, the state could withhold funding for the entire district for such compliance issues but never did. The new policy gives them the ability to withhold funding for a particular student if that student is not able to go to school.

In 2022, a report found that about 1,000 Oregon children with behavioral struggles had been blocked from full school days. 

As of press time, two complaints had been filed under the new law. Both of them were in North Wasco County School District, which serves The Dalles.

$80,000 Special Education Report

Time will tell if any of this — the increased funding, the new policies, the new contracts — will fundamentally change how PPS operates.

In 2020, the district hired Urban Collaborative, an Arizona-based research team, to give them a report on the state of special education in the district. PDX Parent obtained the 105-page report through a public records request. Delivered in 2022 for $80,000, the report made 14 recommendations for how to improve the district’s systems and outcomes for special education students. These included simplifying the district’s organizational structure, making sure disability is included in equity goals and creating a smoother path to services. 

“Special Education in Portland Public Schools exists as a series of physical placements as opposed to a continuum of services to which all students should have access,” reads the report. “This program-centric model has resulted in students with disabilities being denied access to core curriculum and instruction and an education with their non-disabled peers.”

As for students’ academic success, the researchers found an achievement gap of 42 percentage points in English and 37 percentage points in math between students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers. But, they note, most disabilities do not affect cognition. 

“Special education is meant to find supports and services that level the playing field between students with and those without disabilities,” reads the report. “In its ideal state, students with and without disabilities should be achieving at similar rates.”

The researchers stressed success would come with a holistic approach and a shift in philosophy. 

“While the District’s strategic plan clearly names equity and inclusivity as core values, the clear perception exists among teachers, leaders and parents that disability is not [emphasis theirs] included in the District’s racial justice and equity work.”

The report also calls out the amount of time and money the school district spends defending itself from legal challenges related to where students are placed and how their needs are identified.

The district did not respond to direct questions about whether the report’s recommendations had been implemented. However, they provided a link to a September 11 presentation to the school board’s Student Success Committee. To fix the problems the report identified, the district is looking at professional development for principals, adoption of universally designed curriculum and establishing clear and detailed criteria for special education decisions.

“In order to address these challenges,” reads the district presentation, “we must ensure all students have equitable access to inclusive high-quality teaching and materials through a consistent vision for teaching and learning in every classroom for every student.”

Based on Ginger Huizar’s experience, making sure staff get the support they need to stick with their students may be the biggest challenge of all. 

Medicaid in Schools

Over the summer, the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education worked to implement a change many years in the making. It could result in millions more federal dollars flowing to Oregon schools. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid announced May 18 that it was streamlining processes that schools use to bill Medicaid for health services provided in schools. The nation’s schools have technically had this ability since as early as 1988. But the time and effort involved in getting reimbursements has been so high that many — like Portland Public Schools — have left this money on the table. 

Now, that seems to be changing. Oregon won authorization this year to bill Medicaid for all covered students’ health needs, whether they have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan. Combined with the new streamlined federal process, the change holds the potential for Oregon schools to get reimbursed for millions in services — like nursing and therapies — that they are already providing to K-12 students. PPS believes it might get around $1 million this next year for Medicaid administration and is also looking into restarting billing for services. 

Scoreboard on Key School Bills

Passed: HB 5015

Combined with other sources, lawmakers allocated a total of $10.2 billion to the State School Fund — a record-breaking amount for the next two years. Local property taxes will bump the total up to $15.3 billion for all 550,000 K-12 students in the state. That’s nearly $14,000 per student per year. 

Passed: SB 819

Requires districts to have a plan and accountability measures for giving kids on the special education spectrum reduced school hours. Gives the Oregon Department of Education the ability to investigate and impose sanctions on districts and superintendents who don’t follow the law.

Passed: HB 5014

Allocates more than $22 million for the Oregon School for the Deaf and other specialized K-12 funding. 

Dead: HB 2895

Would have removed the 11% cap on extra State School Fund money for special education kids. Districts with a higher percentage of students with IEPs (which are a lot of them) do not get the double weight for the portion of kids over 11%. 

Dead: HB 2703

Would have expanded the ability of teacher’s unions to bargain over class size.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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