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Education

Oregon Secretary of State report calls for more oversight, accountability on school spending and performance

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The Oregon State Capitol houses the offices of the Secretary of State

The report provides suggestions for how elected officials in Oregon can direct more oversight and transparency in the state's education system.

It’s 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 from the tax, a new report from the Secretary of State’s office and the Oregon Audits Division released Tuesday outlines five risk areas that could undermine those spending efforts and jeopardize student achievement going forward.

The report is not an audit, but an “advisory” report directed toward elected officials including the Governor and legislators who can then work with ODE.

“I ordered this new style of report to provide proactive support to state leaders,” said Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan at a press conference Tuesday morning.

“While most audits look at the past, for past performance, this systemic risks analysis and report is designed to head off problems before they occur.”

Fagan said by naming these risks, the goal is for Student Success Act funds to lead to real improvement for students across the state.

“We need to not see a gap for students of color, we need to not see a gap for students who don’t speak English as a first language, we need to not see a gap for students who are in high poverty schools or high poverty communities,” Fagan said.

“We’ve got, what we think is a fairly strong plan here as a state to improve K-12 education, and so we just want leadership to make sure that they’re focusing primarily on that, and not adding a lot of new complexities to the work that ODE and districts have to do,” said Oregon principal auditor Scott Learn.

The report warns that taking the proper steps threatens the effectiveness of the additional investments.

“Not addressing them [the risks] could allow lagging student results and equity gaps for low-income and historically underserved students to persist despite a historic investment in the education system,” according to the report.

The report begins with a history lesson of “abandoned” efforts that preceded the Student Success Act, starting with the certificates of initial and advanced mastery, created by Oregon legislators more than 30 years ago.

Unlike those past efforts, the state education department has upped staffing to support the implementation of the Student Success Act, and the state has provided funding streams for both the SSA and Measure 98, the high school student success fund approved by voters in 2016.

But the report finds “risks” that could keep these measures from leading to better graduation rates or equity for underserved students.

The risks identified in the report include performance monitoring and support; transparency on results and challenges; spending scrutiny and guidance; clear, enforceable district standards; and governance and funding stability.

The report includes “suggested leadership actions” for each stated risk that include ensuring ODE has staff to better monitor school district performance and spending, as well as stronger enforcement of a host of standards — often called “Division 22″ — which all districts are required to adhere to. The actions also call for more staff at ODE to mitigate these risks, in addition to stable funding and leadership at the state level.

The authors of this report went back through six years of past audits and called out persistent areas of tension, such as the competing forces of oversight at the state level and the autonomy of individual school districts. The report concluded 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.”

Oregon principal auditor Krystine McCants said findings from past audits show that sometimes ODE is unable to implement recommendations. The goal of this report, she said, is to play a larger role in helping ODE make improvements.

“We see, throughout audits, places where they can’t move forward with a recommendation, or there isn’t a recommendation we can make to them, because changes need to be made at the legislative or policy decision level above them,” McCants said.

“And so, this report is addressed to leaders who can take on those roles of keeping ODE on the right track and trying to remove or improve some of those barriers that have been challenges to us in past, and in theory, future audits.”

In the five years since a 2017 audit of alternative and online schools, ODE had not fully implemented any of the 15 recommendations made by the audit’s authors. One of the recommendations, to develop public measures to evaluate alternative school performance, will “likely need legislative action to increase capacity” in ODE’s Data and Accountability office, according to ODE Alternative Education Options Specialist Annie Marges.

Officials from the Secretary of State’s office and the Oregon Audits Division say they’ve been in touch with the Oregon Department of Education, the State Board of Education, representatives from the Governor’s office, and legislative leadership.

Oregon Audits Division Director Kip Memmott said the office will have another similar report out in the future on water sustainability and safety in Oregon.

Though the report does not address significant increases in federal funds Oregon districts have at their disposal to address unfinished learning from the pandemic, Memmott said the audits division has a team focused on education and that it’s “on their radar.”

“This report could mirror as a...map to where the audits division will be leaning into for audits in the future,” said Andrew Love, manager of that education team and audit manager for the new report. “These are areas that we see as high risk, and moving forward, we’ll be doing some work in almost all of these areas.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.