The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and Portland Public Schools (PPS) must do more to evaluate costs and eliminate persistent barriers to student performance at struggling, high-poverty schools according to an audit from the Oregon Secretary of State.
PPS has a 53% achievement gap between white and African American students. This gap is substantially worse than the state average. Similarly concerning gaps exist for students who are Hispanic/Latino, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, or economically disadvantaged. Compared to both state and national peer districts, PPS does relatively well with white students and students with disabilities. Conversely, it does relatively poorly with African-American, Latino, and economically disadvantaged students.
“Portland Public Schools and the state continue to struggle substantially with students of color, and this inequity must end,” said Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. “Portland Public Schools has more funding per student than all Oregon peer districts and more than many national peer districts, yet management challenges and an inconsistent focus on performance are hurting students and teachers.”
ODE’s limited enforcement of district standards, a reliance on short-lived improvement initiatives, and a disjointed system of education funding all increase the risk that student performance will continue to lag. ODE does relatively little to support and monitor efficient district spending.
PPS needs to develop a more transparent budget, publicly report on the results of its investments in student achievement, and detail how its revenues and spending compare to peer districts. The audit identified insufficient oversight of contracts, as well as purchasing card spending for things like staff meeting refreshments and Amazon Prime memberships. In 2017, PPS spent at least $13,000 on a retirement party to rent the Portland Spirit river cruise ship, give out crystal clock retirement gifts, and ship in flowers from Hawaii. Another party was held in 2018.
At PPS, many inequities harm students in high-poverty schools, including relatively high rates of teacher turnover, lower teacher experience, and a disconnect between teachers and administrators on managing student conduct. Hiring rules give high-poverty schools fewer teachers to choose from than wealthier schools,while also leading to staffing of these schools with more difficult-to-place teachers and causing them to lose their newly trained teachers after just two years, increasing disruption.
Teachers at high-poverty schools were absent an average of one month out of a nine-month school year, not counting holidays and scheduled breaks. Absences occur most often on Mondays or Fridays. The percentage of jobs not filled by substitutes when teachers were absent was triple at high-poverty schools compared to other schools, indicating substitute days cause more disruption at these schools.
ODE and PPS agreed with all 26 audit recommendations. For ODE, auditors recommended ODE work with the Legislature and education stakeholders to align education investments and improve school district compliance with state education standards. For PPS, the auditors recommended that the district conduct in depth investigations and report on potential savings areas including spending on executive administration, health benefits, bus services, legal services, and building utilization and the use of substitute teachers and educational assistants due to educator absences. Also, PPS should focus on measuring results and addressing inequities at high-poverty schools.
“This audit brings significant challenges to light, challenges that Oregon’s education leaders should be fully capable of addressing,” said Audits Director Kip Memmott. “We will follow up on the audit findings and recommendations to help ensure that they do.”