Portland district says children's needs, not budget, dictate changes

Portland preschool children with learning disabilities aren't getting the services Ñ required by federal law Ñ that they need because of state budget cuts, a special education legal advocacy group says.

Changes in Portland's special education programs forced by state budget cuts during the last two years have meant that services for preschool children with autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities have been cut by more than half, according to a formal complaint filed by the group, the Oregon Advocacy Center.

And the advocacy group contends that, unlike with most recent state and local budget reductions, the blanket cuts represent a violation of federal law. The U.S. government prohibits such wholesale diminishment of special education programs, instead requiring that each child's educational program be based on that child's needs.

'The program is supposed to be individualized to that child's unique needs,' Christine Shank, an advocacy center lawyer, said of the federal law. 'When you tell all the kids who are in the program at 20 hours per week that the next year they're only going to have 12, you're not thinking about the individual kid.'

Many cuts have been to children's programs as a whole and have been significant, parents and advocates say.

A Portland school district official rejects the advocacy center's complaint, saying any changes to a child's education program were based on that child's needs.

The advocacy center complaint, filed with the state Department of Education, cites a Portland school district budget document that details how the programs have changed in recent years. The complaint charges Ñ and the Portland budget document seems to confirm Ñ that, among other changes:

• Preschool children who two years ago got special education services for 16 or 20 hours per week now get them for about 4 1/2 to seven hours per week.

• Children under age 2 with special needs who used to receive one-on-one speech services now receive the services at a clinic with other children.

• Children with autism no longer receive one-on-one services from autism experts.

Were parents consulted?

Parents and special education advocates say the changes were made without consultation with parents. That also would be a violation of the federal law, which requires every child's individualized learning plan be discussed and modified with parents' input.

Maxine Kilcrease, who runs the Portland school district's special education programs, said she was not familiar with the budget document that showed systemwide changes in special education services.

But, she said, budget cuts often mean 'we're doing things differently and more efficiently to continue to still provide appropriate services and get good results.'

She said, however, that any changes to a Portland preschooler's education were made not because of budget considerations but because of the child's needs. 'Budget issues are not the driver,' she said, adding that all parents were consulted about the changes.

The federal government makes Oregon's education department ultimately responsible for providing special education services for preschool children. The Portland school district has run the preschool program as a contractor for the state Ñ one of 10 contractors that run programs around the state.

State officials are negotiating with the Multnomah Education Service District to run the Portland program next year, after the Portland district decided that 2003 will be its last year running the program.

Diana Allen, head of the state's early childhood special education program, said that based on what the state has been told by Portland administrators, state officials think that the Portland program is in compliance.

But, Allen said, an independent expert now will investigate the advocacy center's complaint, and 'they'll come up with findings Ñ whether the allegations made in the complaint are true or not, or are somewhere in between.'

Allen said changes made to a child's education program that were not based on the child's specific needs would be a violation of the federal law. 'That's a big piece of the federal law,' she said.

Services helpful to young

But beyond the possible law violations, parents and special education advocates say the cuts to the preschool programs are especially foolish because special services to disabled children do the most good Ñ and forestall more expensive services later in childhood Ñ if children get the services when they are young.

Michael and Donna Dufresne's son, Noah, is 4 and has autism. After getting services for 18 to 20 hours a week when he started in the Portland program a couple of years ago, Noah now goes to a 2 1/4-hour-long class three days a week Ñ and rides the bus for an hour each way to get to the class, Donna Dufresne said.

When he was getting the 20 hours per week, 'we were seeing huge gains,' Dufresne said. But now, 'he's kind of leveled off,' she said.

Noah still has very little language ability, she said: 'I feel he's just been kind of running idle.'

'You're talking about taking an entire generation of children with disabilities and not providing them with the foundation and supports that they will need to develop basic skills,' said Sharon Lewis, whose 6-year-old daughter, Zoe Allen-Lewis, has a genetic disorder and was receiving diminishing amounts of preschool services until she entered kindergarten this year.

'I think it's going to create a bigger cultural problem in that regular ed teachers are not going to want children with special needs in their classrooms. The level of supports they will be needing is so much greater.'

The complaint is generating plenty of attention.

Kilcrease said it is the first complaint she's aware of that linked the question of the proper level of a child's educational services with the issue of systemic budget cuts.

'I think the whole state, frankly, is watching,' she said. 'It may have implications for the entire state.'

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