Education committee hearing puts focus on students with disabilities
Monday, January 23, 2023
Customarily, the Legislature’s education committees open the first week with hearings focused on agency operations and bills, with topics likely solicited by committee members.
Last week was no exception, with hearings scheduled on public school enrollment trends (down since the pandemic began but stabilizing), federal pandemic emergency funding and an overview of the education agencies in the state. The Oregon Department of Education testified in both the House and the Senate.
But within minutes of testimony starting in the Senate Education Committee’s first-day hearing, Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin signaled it would not be business as usual.
During an ODE presentation on Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, immediately and repeatedly asked pointed questions about services for students experiencing disabilities and receiving special education accommodations. Her passion for this student group’s well-being was unmistakable. She challenged ODE staff about using the term “equity” in a slide presentation while, according to her, many students were being denied services by school districts and ESSER dollars were not being spent on special education services.
It is unusual for a legislator to direct strong questions at agency presenters in an informational hearing. It appeared that the agency folks did not expect the questions or have the information on hand to answer.
Earlier in the day during the release of the Senate Democrats’ agenda, Gelser Blouin said Oregon was “failing” students with special needs and other historically underserved students. She promised additional state powers to address what she called an “emergency.” Her Senate appearance demonstrated that special education students and the treatment of those students in school will be a main topic of discussion this session.
Last week was also notable for a lack of agency and budget bills. A quick survey by OSBA Legislative Services of the 1,894 bills already introduced found about 60 bills submitted by the governor on behalf of an agency. In a typical long session, that number is much higher, with hundreds of agency bills being submitted by agencies responsible for overseeing education, transportation, natural resources and agriculture, operations, and everything else the state does.
The small number of bills likely means that Gov. Tina Kotek is finalizing submissions as she settles into her new office. Agencies spend almost a full year before the start of a session crafting their bills and vetting them internally, and agency bills often drive which topics the Legislature will address. Any delay makes it harder for advocates to prepare for those discussions before the bills start moving through committees.
The void also gives room for other agendas to take root.