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Oregon: SPED services "grapples with high costs of...growing number of disabled students"

June 12, 2023, Rising caseloads, uncertain funding threaten services for Oregon students with highest needs
A little-known program run by education service districts grapples with high costs of supporting a growing number of disabled students.

In 2022, the Northwest Regional Education Service District published a series of stories about students they serve through their Regional Inclusive Services program. Jemma Bosotina, a third grader at Harvey Clarke Elementary in Forest Grove, talked about Carissa Martos, a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing.

“We talk about hearing aids. I tell her what’s wrong with my hearing aids,” Bosotina said in the interview. “There are buttons and she helps me figure that out.”

In a video from NWRESD, Sherwood high schooler Sophia Dirks talked about asking for larger paper, or different colored markers. She lost her vision when she was 9 years old. “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want,” Dirks said. “Don’t feel like an inconvenience.”

Under federal law, every student is entitled to a free appropriate public education or FAPE.

But sometimes school districts need to get help to follow that law.

That’s where Cathy Jensen comes in.

Jensen directs K-12 special education at Northwest Regional ESD, one of 19 such districts in Oregon. ESDs provide a range of services to Oregon’s 197 school districts — from helping with technology to directly supporting instruction. A big part of their work is in special education.

Jensen helps run the NWRESD’s Regional Inclusive Services program.

“The intent of the program is to provide services to students who have complex needs and require highly specialized supports,” Jensen said.

These programs provide crucial high-cost services to students with high needs, ensuring they receive the education they’re entitled to without depleting school district resources. It’s a small but expanding part of the public education puzzle in Oregon, as the number of students needing this help has grown by the thousands in recent years while funding sources have remained flat or dried up.

Funding not keeping up with growth

Regional Inclusive Services do not serve all students with disabilities in Oregon — only those eligible under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, or IDEA. These are students who have one of six qualifying disabilities: they may experience autism spectrum disorder or may be blind or visually impaired, hard of hearing, Deafblind, have an orthopedic impairment, or have a traumatic brain injury.

Jensen helps them access their education, whether it’s through a teacher who can provide specialized instruction to a student who is deaf, or consultants who can offer direct support to students with autism or who have mobility issues….

“It’s really easy to miss this program because it’s a very small number of students, but they’re students that have complex needs in order to access their educational program,” Jensen said.

Jensen says they’ve seen a gradual increase in the number of students served over time.

According to ODE, 7,057 students were counted as part of regional inclusive services in the 2005-2006 school year. That number has nearly doubled over the last 18 years, much of that growth in just the last eight. …

The report found that most students aren’t receiving “adequate” services from RIS, but that varies depending on the level of support needed by the student. The only student group where more than half of students are receiving “adequate” services are students with autism spectrum disorder who need a “low” level of support. And statewide, that level of support is lacking as well, with staffing challenges contributing to the difficulty in helping students….

That funding allows NWRESD to do things like translate science textbooks into Braille, which Jensen said can cost up to $50,000. At NWRESD, Jensen said providing services for students at the beginning of their educational career can pay off when they’re taking higher-level courses in high school.

“Sometimes we’re serving students who have needs that have a high price tag to them — the Braille books, specialized equipment, a 1-1 instructor to teach them Braille,” Jensen said. “It’s the right investment, it’s absolutely worth it and pays off for our kids.”

If Oregon lawmakers approve it, House Bill 5014 includes appropriations from the state general fund to programs like RIS, among other programs, such as the Oregon School for the Deaf.

But the majority of funding for the inclusive services comes from federal funds through the IDEA.

Jensen says funds have remained mostly flat over the years, despite the increased need, especially when it comes to student groups who need the most expensive services.

“The number of children and students eligible for support through RIS continues to rise without a funding formula that rises with it,” according to the 2022 ODE report. According to the report, between 2011 and 2019, the number of students served through the regional services “has increased 37%.” While autism remains the most common disability among students who qualify for RIS support, students who are deafblind and those with traumatic brain injuries are the fastest-growing student groups….

With the current funding for a higher number of students, Jensen said the services offered to students have been “whittled away.” Jensen said in the past, autism specialists were able to teach social skills to groups of students or help with autism evaluations. Now, across the state, autism specialists have caseloads of between 100 and 150 students, making the delivery of individual services more difficult….

“We’re facing a cliff,” Jensen said. “When we don’t know what our funding is going to be from year to year and biennium to biennium. It makes it very hard to recruit and retain staff.”

Like many bills this session, the fate of House Bill 5014 is still unclear. Last Wednesday, the Joint Committee On Ways and Means approved amendments to the bill, which includes $75 million for RIS, an improvement over initial funding. Jensen said that will help “maintain current staffing,” but that allocation includes more temporary funding that will not be available in the future….


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