Seven weeks after backing her state Board of Education’s decision to loosen high school instruction-time requirements, Gov. Kate Brown is second-guessing the decision and calling for additional review of the policy.

Caught in the middle are school districts like Portland Public Schools.   

The state board approved four broad exemptions to state instruction time requirements on Sept. 20, opening the door to potentially tens of thousands of Oregon students attending high school part-time. At the time, Brown defended the changes.  

“Every student has individual needs to succeed, and the recent decision by the board gives districts the ability to support students on their individual paths to graduation, especially those who need the most time with their teachers,” said Brown’s press secretary, Kate Kondayen, in a statement provided to OPB on Sept. 21.

Brown’s Republican opponent for governor, Knute Buehler, blasted the board’s decision at the time. He said there was a “profound inconsistency” between Brown’s support for a longer school year and her education board’s approval of looser instruction time rules for high school students.

The exemptions allowed part-time high school for seniors who had already completed their minimum graduation requirements, for seniors who are on track to graduate, for students enrolled in advanced coursework (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes), and for students enrolled in alternative programs. The education board said individual school districts would have to hold a hearing and vote on using the exemptions.

Portland Public Schools scheduled a discussion of the exemptions for its Nov. 13 board meeting. Meeting materials said several thousand high school students could be scheduled less than full-time in upcoming school years: 2,200 seniors who are on-track to graduate and more than 6,000 students across its nine high schools who are enrolled in at least one advanced class. Well over half of high schoolers in Oregon’s largest school district could attend part-time, if PPS took full advantage of the state’s exemptions. PPS officials have argued in favor of the exemptions because it would allow the district to prioritize additional support to students who are not on track to graduate.

But with the election over, and as school districts prepare to use the exemptions, Brown is asking questions.

“I have concerns with the recommendation provided to the State Board by the Department that appeared to not have adequate supporting data to inform the decision,” Brown said in her Nov. 9 letter to Colt Gill, her deputy superintendent of public instruction and director of the Oregon Department of Education.

Brown specified the exemptions involving “students who are deemed ‘on track to graduate’ and ‘students taking accelerated coursework.’”  

In response, Brown is asking that ODE “require all school districts provide student-level data that details the number of students exempted using each of the four ‘targeted flexibility’ criteria.” Brown wants ODE to then conduct “deeper analysis of a sample of districts across the state” — a sample she’s asking to include PPS, “because of the district’s history in this issue.” A coalition of parents in Portland, including two current members of the Portland school board, filed a legal complaint several years ago to increase or maintain high school instruction time.

Further, Brown wants ODE to review the flexibility rules in the coming months. That would happen before school districts set high school schedules for fall 2019. The state board’s rules allow for parents to request full instruction time for their high school-aged children. But parents argue that mainly white, affluent parents will take advantage, thus disproportionately short-changing low-income students and students of color.

Brown’s letter repeated her call for a 180-day school year for Oregon public schools. She said ODE and the state board should work on a “longer-term and more comprehensive solution” aimed at increasing instruction time, overall.

In an interview with OPB, Gill said Brown’s Nov. 9 letter to him should be viewed in the context of increasing the school year to 180 days, rather than as a second-guessing of the state board’s decision in September. Extending the school year would be a costly and complicated endeavor, largely in the hands of budget-writing lawmakers.

But in her letter to Gill, Brown attempted to put more power in the hands of ODE by establishing a work group that would “ensure students in all school districts are provided with a longer school year, ideally within the next two biennia.”

However, ODE’s powers are limited by Oregon law, and oversight of the high school instruction time exemptions could test those powers.

For instance, Gill emphasized to OPB that school districts are supposed to take specific steps to use the new instruction time exemptions. But ODE doesn’t get to review the decisions after they go through the local school board.

“It’s a local control issue. So the state board sets the rule and the local boards make policies based on those rules,” Gill said.

Instruction time exemptions would become part of paperwork districts file every year, roughly eight months after a school year ends. That means any oversight from the state would likely come long after the fact.

Even getting information out of school districts is not a simple matter. While Brown’s letter asked ODE to “require” that school districts report what instruction time exemptions they’re using, ODE has limited power to obtain information that’s not required by law.  

“We’ll work with all of our district partners so that we can receive that data,” said Gill.