State education officials would gain substantial new powers under a bill aimed at addressing longstanding problems in Oregon’s public schools, from poor reading outcomes in the early grades to low high school graduation rates.
State leaders have historically focused on providing incentives to encourage districts to move in the right direction — most recently through the Student Success Act grant program, which encouraged districts to direct spending on priorities like reducing class sizes and expanding instructional time. But this session, Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that would provide a stick to go with the carrots by giving the Oregon Department of Education greater authority over school districts when it comes to ensuring they’re following state rules and regulations.
Gov. Tina Kotek identified education as one of her three main priorities headed into the 2023 legislative session, and her office has proposed a major shift in oversight for public schools.
The proposal, Senate Bill 1045 was greeted at the Senate Committee on Education to conflicting reviews and questions from lawmakers as they were still poring through a 32-page amendment.
Kotek’s education advisor, Melissa Goff, said the bill was an attempt to address the department’s “extremely limited action options… when our schools are out of compliance.” Under current state policy, school districts fill out assurance forms pledging that they are following state requirements. The education department collects those assurances, but only investigates district practices if someone files a complaint.
SB 1045 would create a “monitoring process” that state education officials would use to ensure compliance. The bill would authorize the department to identify districts as “nonstandard” if they were in violation of laws or rules related to “student health or safety, discrimination, special education or access to education.” The state could alternatively label school districts as “conditionally standard” if they were out of compliance with any other state or federal requirements. School districts with either label could see additional intervention from the state.
Under the bill, school districts that are out of compliance would first be required to submit a corrective action plan, and get state approval for it. If the district’s plan doesn’t fix the problems, then the bill provides more power to the state to press further.
The state education department already has the power to withhold state funding in extreme circumstances, but under SB 1045, state officials would have greater flexibility to block or limit various state funding sources, under what Goff described as a “more targeted improvement approach.”
The bill could also allow the state to intervene in spending decisions performed by local superintendents and school boards. Goff said the bill could lead the state education department to specify how nonstandard or conditionally standard school districts spend their money with the goal of “improving expenditures… related to that particular deficiency.”
Goff said the bill prioritizes guidance and support from the state with the goal of helping districts improve rather than face sanctions.
Goff identified two key areas where the state department might exercise its additional authority: overseeing instructional materials and obtaining data on grades. As OPB reported, advocates for more consistent reading instruction for early grades have blamed Oregon’s poor reading scores on the state’s lax oversight. Goff said it’s important for the state to get information about students’ grades because they tend to be one of the strongest indicators of a student’s success in college.
Goff said some of Kotek’s priorities for giving the state’s education department more power over school districts are drawn from a review of public schools by the Oregon Secretary of State.
Goff portrayed the bill as a balance between providing support and tightening accountability, with an emphasis on the latter.
Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said the education department is already viewed as a threat by many local school communities.
“They feel as though the Department of Education is coming in to find something wrong with them so that they can then say that they did their duty, rather than to come in and say, ‘All right, what’s going on? What can we help you with?’” Frederick said. “I mean, this is going to take some time to change that culture.”
Frederick expressed an interest in talking further with Goff about the complex issues raised by the governor’s bill.
But Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, had a very different view, seeing the department as having too little power and moving too slowly to help with problems experienced at Oregon schools
“What I hear from students, families, advocates and others is that the department does not see itself as a compliance organization. And in fact, the department tells me that they are not a compliance organization and that they have no authority to do anything to require people to follow state laws or federal laws,” Gelser Blouin said.
Gelser Blouin questioned why the bill lacks specific timelines for enforcement. Goff responded that it was intended to allow the education department flexibility to prioritize important violations.
Two of the state’s leading education stakeholder groups — representing top school executives and school board members — raised concerns about the proposal.
The Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, or COSA, said the bill appeared overly focused on enforcement and accountability, without sufficient emphasis on support. Morgan Allen, COSA’s government relations director, suggested if the state is going to identify problems, it needs to be willing to help solve them.
“I think most superintendents would say is that in order to move things forward, it can’t just all be about compliance,” said Allen “If you ask people what they thought, I think the shortcomings of our current system are, it’s that there’s really nowhere to go for help.”
Richard Donovan with the Oregon School Boards Association said the bill goes against widely held support in the state for local control of public schools.
He called the latest version of the bill “a seismic shift away from the way that we do schools now in Oregon. It centralizes things in ways that are not common.”
Donovan went on to question whether it made sense to consolidate authority under a state board whose members are appointed by the governor, rather than elected by voters. He said the education department already “does not deliver” what school leaders expect.
“To then think about adding these expensive responsibilities onto the weight of the department’s role is concerning,” Donovan said, “especially because this bill would simultaneously shift control to a non-elected state board of education. Away from, in many ways, control at the local level by locally elected school board members.”
The chair of the senate education committee, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, seemed to respond to Donovan’s case for maintaining local control by noting the frequency that complaints about public schools are directed at state legislators like him.
“The challenge that I find is when people have complaints about, for example, student achievement, they don’t really go to the local school district and blame the school district — they point their finger at us,” Dembrow said, meaning the legislature.
Dembrow said the public is calling on the state to provide “some assurances” and said SB 1045 is attempting to do that.
The education committee has scheduled to work on it further at its meeting on March 30.