Audit: Reform, safeguards needed for Oregon education system
A recent state audit of Oregon's K-12 school system identified "persistent system risks" that could hamper the state education system's ability to improve.
The Student Success Act, passed in 2019, generates an extra $1 billion per year for Oregon schools. It also requires the Oregon Department of Education to track district performance and to monitor progress toward reaching the state's Quality Education Model.
It's one of four robust education improvement initiatives over the past 30 years, but without proper oversight, state auditors fear it could be squandered.
The Secretary of State's office noted in its May audit that most major efforts to reform K-12 education have since been scrapped. Without monitoring and oversight, especially as school districts face rising costs, auditors said in their systemic risk report that the Student Success Act also could fail. In addition, student performance and graduation could lag, while equity gaps persist.
"This history indicates state leaders will need to closely monitor the progress and challenges ahead for the Student Success Act to succeed long-term," the report noted, addressing findings to the governor, the state Board of Education and the Legislature.
Auditors identified five "key risks" that could undermine Oregon's efforts to improve its K-12 system: performance monitoring and support; transparency on results and challenges; spending scrutiny and guidance; clear, enforceable district standards; and governance and funding stability.
Auditors suggested policymakers and government leaders should support the Oregon Department of Education in "providing more analysis of school district spending" and helping districts craft budgets that focus on student support while offsetting rising costs. ODE has been reluctant to infringe on district control of school dollars, the report states, noting the agency "has not gone beyond checkbox oversight" when it comes to spending recommendations from the Quality Education Commission.
Touching on performance monitoring and support, auditors noted ODE and its contractor, Education Northwest, had only evaluated its Title I federal grant program — meant for schools with disadvantaged students — once in seven years. The evaluations that did occur "lacked rigor," state auditors noted, and Title I schools were performing worse than others, despite federal assistance.
"Reforming education is a complex, long-term effort, requiring leaders and policymakers to set clear goals and foster a long-term focus," the report noted, in regard to governance and funding stability. "A large number of separate programs, unrealistic timelines, and frequent changes in funding priorities and leadership can undermine reform efforts."
Conflict with state goals
The state Education Department "largely agrees with and is thankful for the report," ODE Communications Director Marc Siegel said.
Siegel noted however, the report's call for more reporting and transparency in data is at odds with HB 4030, which was passed in 2022 and directed the State Board of Education to halt some non-essential district reporting requirements. It also conflicts with recent efforts from the governor and ODE to "relieve the reporting burden for small school districts."
Siegel also cautioned that raw data isn't always the best metric, noting it's often oversimplified when reported, which can cause harm.
"Current education equity efforts are in their infancy," Siegel said. "Oregon needs to stick with current reforms and innovations like the Student Success Act and High School Success efforts to reach their full benefits for students. Oregon must maintain a long-term commitment to its education equity initiatives as the educational disparities did not develop overnight and solutions will not come overnight."
Since 2016, Oregon has seen statewide improvement in its graduation rate, outpacing the national average, and also has noted improvement in ninth grade on-track rates. Still, Oregon's 2018-19 overall graduation rate was among the lowest in the nation, ranking 47th in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Auditors also cautioned of persistent equity gaps among the state's underserved students. In 2017, state auditors noted more than 70% of students who don't graduate on time are in low-income households. Special education students aren't receiving the early interventions needed and nearly half of the state's dropouts come from alternative and online schools.
The COVID-19 pandemic added a curveball to Oregon's progress. ODE reported last November that more than a quarter of Oregon high school freshmen hadn't passed enough classes to be on track to graduate in the 2020-21 school year.
Oregon's Audits Division has focused heavily on the state's public education system, issuing six performance audits of ODE and four follow-up reports since 2016.
"The reason for this focus is the importance of education to Oregon's economy and well-being," according to the report's authors, Andrew Love, Scott Lear and Krystine McCants. "Oregon's K-12 public education system includes 197 school districts serving more than 560,000 students, with the State School Fund totaling more than $4.6 billion per year, by far the state's largest single use of general and lottery funds.
"The success and well-being of children in this system is critically important to Oregonians. It is also an arena where social inequities can be either exacerbated or mitigated."
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