Senate Bill 819: Oregon legislators are about to make matters much worse for students who want to learn and teachers who want to teach
By Dr. Michael Bratland
Talk to any teacher who’s thinking about leaving the profession and they’ll likely tell you that one of the reasons is that student behavior is out of control. Heck, talk to teachers who aren’t fleeing our schools. (I do. My wife and her colleagues and friends are public-school teachers.) They’ll tell you much the same thing. Student behavior was not great before the pandemic, but it’s gotten worse since then. Now, it’s not a lot of students. It’ s only a handful. But one or two chronically unruly or disobedient kids in a classroom can make life and learning impossible for their teachers and fellow students. It’s hard to believe that Oregon’s graduation rates would rank among the nation’s lowest or our drop-out rates among the highest – or that only 32 percent of our kids are at grade level in math or only 47 percent in reading – if our classrooms were true, undisruptive places of learning.
Now, you might think our Salem legislators would be hard at work coming up with remedies to solve this problem, but you would be wrong. Tragically wrong. In fact, they’re about to make matters much worse for teachers who want to teach and students who want to learn. A big bipartisan majority just rushed SB 819 through the Senate, and it’s now awaiting a vote in the House.
SB 819 requires that schools that want to assign a student with a disability a shortened day or days must secure the parent or guardian’s consent. If the parent files a written objection to their child’s shortened school day, the district will have to return the student to school within five school days or face the loss of state school funds and the responsible administrator will face disciplinary action. The bill is supposed to secure the rights of students with disabilities and put an end to the heart-breaking cases where students are left without education services and their parents are too often left in the lurch.
Yes, SB 819 may be addressing a real problem – students with disabilities not gaining the educational services they’re entitled by federal law to receive – but it falls short on two counts. One, it fails to recognize that many of these students often present severe behavioral problems (meltdowns, acting-out, violence, etc.) and make it impossible for teachers to teach the other 20, 30 or 40 kids in their regular classroom. Classroom teachers understand this reality, and even parents of these students with disabilities, acknowledge their kids’ behavioral issues. Two, SB 819 fails to include classroom teachers in its proposed solution. (Where, you might ask are the teachers unions in all this? Just who is representing regular teachers?) Legislators, school boards and administrators should be fostering strong parent-teacher partnerships that guarantee classrooms are not hijacked by a handful of chronically disruptive students. At the very least, SB 819 needs an amendment to this effect if it is to move forward. At the very least, our Oregon legislators need to strike a balance between the rights of students with disabilities and the rights of all students and their teachers to orderly classrooms.
While our legislators are pushing through a bill that will make things worse for our teachers and their students, Kentucky legislators have passed a school discipline bill that could make things better. House Bill 538 would allow schools to indefinitely remove “chronically disruptive” students – students booted from the classroom three times in month by the same teacher – from a classroom and assign them to another classroom, virtual learning environment or alternative program if educators believed they would “chronically disrupt the education process for others.” It’s instructive that House Bill 538’s sponsor is an elementary school principal who believes his measure would “empower teachers to control what happens inside their classrooms.”
Oregon’s SB 819, by contrast, further dis-empowers our teachers. The Kentucky bill may not be the right fit for Oregon. But it says something – something sad, something depressing – that Oregon legislators, in a weird bipartisan fashion, are busy passing a bill that will make our state’s classrooms more unmanageable. Oregon’s teachers, parents and students deserve so much better.
Dr. Michael Bratland is a dentist and owner of Crisdental in Eugene, Oregon. He’s a husband and the father of five of his own children and two foster children. He’s running for Eugene 4J school board this May.