A middle school language arts class in Salem in 2018 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Oregon leaders need to press for more accountability while avoiding political “flavor of the month” funding choices so schooling for the state’s 540,000 students can improve, a new state report concludes.

State auditors say the $4.6 billion a year spent by the state on education is at risk because education standards aren’t enforced, spending decisions aren’t always made carefully, and state leaders expect quick results for long-term problems, disrupting reform.

Auditors made their conclusions and recommended action after doubling back on state audits dating back to 2016. They assembled what they said was not another audit but rather a first-ever “systemic risk report,” released on Tuesday.

The work was done under the direction of Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, who said at a news conference that the report is “designed to head off problems before they occur. We need strong leadership, particularly right now.”

The report and Fagan both said reforms at both the state and local levels are needed particularly to improve schooling for students of color, those who aren’t English speakers, and other students who struggle in the current system.

Fagan said officials from the governor on down could help those students by acting on the recommendations to close gaps in achievement.

For instance, she said, “We need not to see a gap for students who are in high-poverty schools or high-poverty communities.”

Kip Memmott, director of the state Audits Division, said the team took a “cold, steely audit approach” to the work.

He said the results were presented to Gov. Kate Brown’s staff, the Oregon Department of Education and members of the state Board of Education. He also said key legislative leaders, including chairs of education committees, were told the results and “they are very intrigued.”

THE REPORT: K-12 Education – Systemic Risk Report

Over and over in the report, auditors noted that state leaders need to give the Education Department freedom to do its job, which means getting tougher with local school systems.

They noted the tension between local control and state provenance.

“Leaders and policymakers must balance local control of school districts with reasonable, enforceable standards,” the report said.

There now is a “lack of clarity and enforceability, allowing low performance to persist,” the report said.

And it was not subtle in indicating that politicians need to refrain from constantly changing state programs and funding for schools.

“A large number of separate programs, unrealistic timelines, and frequent changes in funding priorities and leadership can undermine reform efforts,” the report said.

Auditors said legislators often want progress reports on programs just getting underway and then push for more new programs.

“State grants come and go, giving them a ‘flavor of the month’ cast that increases skepticism and instability,” the report said.

The report noted that the Student Success Act, passed by the Legislature in 2019 to increase school funding, was the fourth major education reform implemented in Oregon since the 1990s.

“The previous three were all abandoned,” the report said.

And despite recent reforms, Oregon continues to rank near the bottom in the country for high school graduation rates.

Additionally, “Oregon’s underserved student populations still face significant achievement gaps relative to overall results in graduation rates and achievement test results for math and English Language Arts,” the report said.

Auditors urged state leaders to act on the new recommendations.

“Not addressing them 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,” the report said.

The auditors noted repeatedly that the Education Department wasn’t enforcing standards meant to ensure every student gets solid schooling. The agency needs to do more on that front – with backing of state leaders.

“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,” the report found.

Auditors said the state particularly needs to hold statewide and regional online schools more accountable, noting the high dropout rate in them.

Scott Learn, a principal auditor who was on the report team, noted that turnover in the governor’s office and the Legislature made it challenging for the state to stay focused on a long-term plan for improving education in Oregon’s schools.

“It becomes more difficult for people to maintain a steady focus,” said Learn.

The report urged that longer view and more patience.

“Focus particularly on programs supporting struggling schools and vulnerable students,” the report said.

Memmott said the report was written with candor to provide public officials a tool to more comfortably discuss what can often be challenging school issues.

Colt Gill, director of the Education Department, “largely agrees with and is thankful for the report,” said Marc Siegel, agency communications director.

“Current education equity efforts are in their infancy,” Siegel said. “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.”

5 risks to Oregon education

Risk #1: Performance Monitoring and Support: Performance monitoring is crucial to school improvement. State leaders and policymakers must work with ODE to ensure monitoring of district performance and state support when needed to promote success.

Risk #2: Transparency on Results and Challenges: To foster accountability and timely adjustments, leaders and policymakers must require thorough reporting of school improvement results and challenges.

Risk #3: Spending Scrutiny and Guidance: Leaders and policymakers should support ODE in providing more analysis of school district spending, helping districts focus spending on student support and offset rising costs.

Risk #4: Clear, Enforceable District Standards: Oregon’s Division 22 standards for K-12 schools lack clarity and enforceability, allowing low performance to persist. To increase accountability for state funds and student success, leaders and policymakers must balance local control of school districts with reasonable, enforceable standards.

Risk #5: Governance and Funding Stability: Reforming education is a complex, long-term effort, requiring leaders and policymakers to set clear goals and foster a long-term focus. A large number of separate programs, unrealistic timelines, and frequent changes in funding priorities and leadership can undermine reform efforts.

Source: Oregon Department of Education report

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