Oregon Department of Education needs more responsibility for school programs, report says
Ensuring the viability of Oregon’s landmark school funding bill will require significant state oversight, the secretary of state’s office concluded Tuesday in a new report.
The Oregon Secretary of State Audits Division’s first “systemic risk report” focuses on the implementation of 2019’s Student Success Act and efforts to improve student achievement. Rather than a traditional backward-looking audit, the report aims to anticipate problems.
The “advisory” report on Oregon K-12 education calls for the Oregon Department of Education to have more authority and more responsibility to monitor and guide education programs, especially ones that are struggling. It concludes that “a lack of intervention by ODE, despite significant problems at the school and district level, has been a larger problem than infringement on local control.”
Although OSBA is a staunch advocate of local control, Executive Director Jim Green said the report’s criticisms and recommendations largely track with school leaders’ understanding.
“Additional money requires additional accountability,” Green said. “If the state is going to put a billion new dollars … into education, then we believe there needs to be additional accountability.”
The 2019 act aims to provide roughly $1 billion a year from a new corporate activity tax to improve student outcomes, especially with traditionally underserved populations. Roughly half of it goes directly to school districts.
Green, however, added that the report fails to fully consider the pandemic’s repercussions. COVID-19 and distance learning have disrupted school systems, delayed academic goals, traumatized students and sapped the workforce. Even with more money, schools are struggling to find the staff to deal with current problems, let alone additional interventions and reporting.
“I don’t like using the pandemic as an excuse, but we got hit by a Mack truck that we are yet to recover from,” Green said.
Under the act, districts must create four-year plans that ODE approves and monitors. ODE can require coaching programs and direct plan spending, especially in high-needs districts. ODE created the Office of Education Innovation and Improvement with nearly 50 staff positions to support the work.
School leaders have credited ODE with adopting a more collaborative approach under Director Colt Gill, especially during the pandemic when many of the usual reporting requirements were thrown out the window as impossible.
“Oregon best serves students when school districts and ODE are working in full partnership, maximizing state resources to tailor local solutions for communities and individual solutions for students,” Gill said in an email.
The report said the Legislature’s shifting priorities significantly impede improvement efforts.
The report notes that the Student Success Act, coupled with the Measure 98 High School Success Fund, is Oregon’s fourth major K-12 improvement effort since the 1990s. The first three – certificates of mastery, the Oregon Education Investment Board and the Chief Education Office under the governor – withered and died without consistent financial backing and political support, the report said.
ODE administers more than 100 state and federal grant initiatives, with 22 added just during the 2021 legislative session. ODE has multiple teams tasked with addressing initiatives such as reducing absenteeism, increasing equity and improving English language learning.
The two-year legislative cycle calls for frequent reports without giving programs time to establish themselves, giving grants “a ‘flavor of the month’ cast that increases skepticism and instability,” the report said.
Senate Education Committee Chair Michael Dembrow said he takes those criticisms seriously.
“Too often, good ideas are tried out and there is not the necessary follow-up,” he said.
Dembrow, D-Portland, said the Student Success Act was largely designed with those concerns in mind, with accountability and stable funding built in. He said he is committed to defending the corporate activity tax against rumblings to remove or reduce it.
The next legislative session will likely continue the tug-of-war, though, between legislative oversight of state funds and local desires to make decisions about their communities, he said.
Ultimately, ODE’s level of reporting, transparency and accountability is in the hands of the governor and the Legislature, Gill said. Overly simplistic data collection without rethinking how it is presented and used could actually cause more harm to the communities the state is aiming to serve, he said.
The report urges the governor, the Legislature and the State Board of Education to work with ODE to address five key risks: performance monitoring and support; transparency on results and challenges; spending scrutiny and guidance; clear, enforceable district standards; and governance and funding stability.
The report said ODE is not doing enough to monitor and intervene with school districts and that its reporting has too many gaps. It wraps up by noting that a “piecemeal approach to improving K-12 education” with short timelines adds volatility to ODE’s operations.
The report said school boards should also consider its observations but does not call on them to respond.
“There is already a fair amount of oversight,” said OSBA Board President Scott Rogers, who hears frequently from members frustrated by mandates and rules that don’t fit their situations.
He said COVID-19 has demonstrated that the state holds significant control already, even in areas where local leaders are better positioned to make the calls.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA