Special education is, in some ways, the Forbidden Forest of public education. Like Harry Potter’s dark and scary place, it’s endless and ever-changing, though its thicket is a set of rules and regulations, not trees. Even Oregon lawmakers can lose their way in this Forbidden Forest, as they did in the legislative session that ended in July.

I don’t doubt their mistake this year was unintended. Senate Bill 20 appeared to be one of those housekeeping sorts of things, necessary but no real change from what was being replaced. It sailed through the 2017 Legislature without so much as a hiccup, its problems lying undiscovered until later.

The bill was written to bring ­Oregon law into line with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

As part of the realignment, the bill made the state’s modified graduation diploma equivalent in the eyes of Oregon law to a standard high school diploma.

It may be equivalent, but a modified diploma is different from its standard sibling. If a student is on track to earn a modified diploma, a school district may make fundamental changes in one or more classes for that student. The student may take more electives and graduate with fewer credits as well. Those changes, says Sean Reinhart, executive director of Special Programs at Bend-La Pine Schools, are different than the “accommodations” required for some disabilities, things that make it possible for students with hearing or vision loss to attend regular classes, for example.

The modified diploma offers at least one big plus for students with disabilities and their families, says Reinhart. Students with the modified diploma have access to federal loans for post-high school education, something they used to lack.

That’s a big deal, in my book. Privately run transition programs, aimed at men and women with disabilities who have completed high school, can be expensive. I know one, at a large Midwestern college, that will set a student back more than $40,000 a year for three years. That amount does include full room and board, but it would be expensive even without that cost.

When my younger daughter, Mary, attended a (less expensive) private two-year program more than a decade ago, it was up to her parents to foot the entire bill. We were glad to be able to do so, but today, thanks to changes in the law, Mary likely would have been eligible for Pell grants and other federal programs aimed at bringing the cost of post-secondary education down.

I thank Democratic state Sen. Sara Gelser, who represents portions of Linn and Benton counties, for the change.

Despite its noble aim, lawmakers missed one thing about SB 20: If a modified diploma is equal to a standard diploma, a young man or woman who receives one at age 18 is no longer eligible for a district’s own transitional services, offered in Bend at the district’s Transition Co-op on the city’s east side. Some of the 24 students who earned modified diplomas this past year already had planned to enroll in TC; others from earlier years were already there.

TC has just 34 students this year, although SB 20 would have derailed the plans of those 34 students, and the Bend-La Pine district awarded modified diplomas to 24 students.

Reinhart says the mistake was discovered by an information technology employee at another school district, and after a scramble, an administrative rule covering those 34 and students elsewhere in a similar position was approved. Those students, at least, will be allowed to finish their work as originally planned.

It’s only a temporary fix, unfortunately.

Lawmakers will have a chance to redeem themselves in 2018, when they meet in the biennial short session. I suspect they’ll do so readily. After all, there’s money on the line for many of the state’s 220 school districts.

It would be easy to chalk the problem, its creation and its impact, up to legislative carelessness, but that would be unfair. Anyone not thoroughly immersed in the Forbidden Forest of special education law could have missed it, and some who were immersed missed it. Fortunately, the problem has been put on hold to give lawmakers time to undo the damage.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821 or jstevens@bendbulletin.com

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