Oregon Secretary of State report calls for more oversight and accountability over school spending and performance
It has been three years since the Oregon Legislature passed the Student Success Act, a law creating a new tax to support K-12 education in the state.
With hundreds of millions of dollars going to Oregon schools through the tax, a new report from the Office of the Secretary of State and Oregon’s Auditing Division released Tuesday outlines five areas of risk that could undermine those spending efforts and jeopardize student success in the future.
The report is not an audit, but an “advisory” report for elected officials, including the governor and legislators, who can then work with ODE.
“I commissioned this new style of reporting to provide proactive support to heads of state,” Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said at a press conference Tuesday morning.
“While most audits look to the past, for past performance, this systemic risk analysis and report is designed to head off problems before they happen.”
Fagan said that in naming these risks, the goal is for Student Success Act funds to lead to real improvement for students across the state.
“We mustn’t see a gap for students of color, we mustn’t see a gap for students who don’t speak English as their first language, we mustn’t see a gap for students who are in high poverty schools or high poor communities,” Fagan said.
“We have, what we think is a pretty solid plan here as a state to improve K-12 education, and so we just want leaders to make sure they’re primarily focused on that, and doesn’t add much new complexity to the work that ODE and the districts have to do,” said Scott Learn, Oregon’s lead auditor.
The report warns that failure to take appropriate action threatens the effectiveness of additional investments.
“Don’t go to them [the risks] could allow lagging student achievement and equity gaps for low-income and historically underserved students to persist despite historic investment in the education system,” according to the report.
The report begins with a history lesson of the “discontinued” efforts that preceded the Student Success Act, beginning with initial and advanced master’s certificates, created by Oregon lawmakers more than 30 years ago.
In contrast to these past efforts, the state Department of Education has increased its staff to support the implementation of the Student Success Act, and the state has provided funding streams for both the SSA and Measure 98, the 2016 voter-approved high school student success fund.
But the report finds “risks” that could prevent these measures from leading to better graduation rates or equity for underserved students.
Risks identified in the report include performance monitoring and support; transparency on results and challenges; expenditure review and guidance; clear and enforceable district standards; and stability of governance and funding.
The report includes “suggested leadership actions” for each stated risk, including ensuring the ODE has staff to better monitor school district performance and spending, as well as stricter enforcement of a host of of standards – often referred to as “Division 22” – which all districts are held to. to join. The actions also require more ODE staff to mitigate these risks, in addition to stable funding and leadership at the state level.
The authors of this report reviewed six years of past audits and pointed to areas of continuing tension, such as competing forces of state-level oversight and the autonomy of individual school districts. The report concluded that “the lack of intervention by ODE, despite significant problems at the school and district level, has been a bigger problem than the violation of local control”.
Oregon’s lead auditor, Krystine McCants, said findings from past audits show that sometimes the ODE is unable to implement recommendations. The purpose of this report, she said, is to play a bigger role in helping ODE make improvements.
“We see, throughout the audits, places where they can’t go forward with a recommendation, or there’s no recommendation we can make to them, because changes need to be made at the level of legislative or policy decision above them,” McCants mentioned.
“And so this report is for leaders who can take on those roles of keeping ODE on track and trying to remove or improve some of those barriers that have challenged us in past audits and , in theory, future.”
In the five years since a 2017 audit of alternative and online schools, the ODE had not fully implemented any of the 15 recommendations made by the authors of the audit. One of the recommendations, to develop public metrics to assess the performance of alternative schools, “will likely require legislative action to increase the capacity” of the ODE’s office of data and accountability, according to data specialist Annie Marges. ODE Alternative Education Options.
Officials from the Office of the Secretary of State and the Oregon Division of Audits said they have been in contact with the Oregon Department of Education, the State Board of Education, representatives from the Governor’s office and legislative leaders.
Oregon Audit Division Director Kip Memmott said the bureau will release another similar report on Oregon’s sustainability and water safety in the future.
While the report does not discuss significant increases in federal funds available to Oregon districts to address unfinished learnings from the pandemic, Memmott said the audit division has a team focused on education and that it was “on their radar”.
“This report could reflect like a map on which the audits division will look for audits in the future,” said Andrew Love, manager of this training team and audit manager for the new report. “These are areas that we consider to be high risk, and going forward we will be doing work in almost all of these areas.”