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EduLege Tracker 12-18-17

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EduLege Update Volume V, Number 87
December 18, 2017
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Before I too cruise into a holiday snooze, here’s one last edition of EduLege News…

Backing off…

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath says that the state will not hold back 5th- and 8th-grade students who reside in areas affected by Hurricane Harvey if they perform poorly on standardized achievement tests next year.

The announcement comes following a letter that Governor Greg Abbott sent, asking the commissioner to consider ways to help relieve some of the pressures on students in areas most affected by Harvey. In announcing his decision, Commissioner Morath said that he also took into consideration input provided by members of the House Public Education Committee and Senate Education Committee at recent hearings regarding the hurricane’s impact on school districts.

Districts most severely affected by Harvey have been urging the state to postpone grading, and potentially penalizing them, in the wake of a storm that triggered catastrophic flooding, damaged schools, delayed the start of classes and displaced students.

In a statement, Commissioner Morath said that 5th- and 8th-grade students in the federal disaster area will not be held back due to poor performances on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams.

Districts should continue to plan for administration of high school end-of-course exams May 7-11, and for Grades 3-8 Math and Reading, Grade 5 Science, Grade 8 Science and Social Studies, Algebra II and English III May 14-18. School officials across Southeast Texas and the Coastal Bend have said they would be willing to have their students take the STAAR, but they did not want their districts to be rated—or penalized—based on the scores.

Education officials are also anxious about the state's new accountability rating system, which will make a soft debut next year. The Texas Legislature approved evaluating schools and districts on an A-F letter grade system based on various performance factors, including student scores on the STAAR exams. Districts are scheduled to receive letter grades in August, with individual schools getting the grades in 2019.

Commissioner Morath advised that no decisions have been made related to district and campus accountability ratings for Harvey-affected districts or campuses. The 47 counties in the federal disaster area are: Aransas, Austin, Bastrop, Bee, Brazoria, Burleson, Caldwell, Calhoun, Chambers, Colorado, Comal, DeWitt, Fayette, Fort Bend, Galveston, Goliad, Gonzales, Grimes, Guadalupe, Hardin, Harris, Jackson, Jasper, Jefferson, Jim Wells, Lavaca, Lee, Liberty, Madison, Matagorda, Milam, Montgomery, Newton, Nueces, Orange, Polk, Refugio, Sabine, San Augustine, San Jacinto, San Patricio, Tyler, Victoria, Walker, Waller, Washington, and Wharton.

To read Commissioner Morath’s letter to school administrators, visit the TEA website here.

Perhaps he’s sweating in his socks…

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, is questioning whether a pro-public school group can legally help get out the vote next year, while education advocates say the pushback is part of the Texas Legislature’s backlash against public education.

Senator Bettencourt has asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for an opinion on whether school districts can provide transportation for employees and students to polling places without violating state law. He also wants to know what the legal constraints are surrounding districts spending public funds to influence voters. State law prevents the use of public funds to advocate for a particular candidate or outcome in an election.

The Houston Republican—a close ally of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick—is concerned about a resolution that Texas Educators Vote, a civic engagement group, has encouraged local school boards to adopt. That resolution authorized local school administrators to ensure that students and district employees participate in the election process by helping them register to vote and transporting them to the polls on Election Day.

Nearly 100 school districts have adopted the resolution, according to Texas Educators Vote's website. Director Laura Yeager denies that her organization is encouraging any violation of state law. She argued that the oath's language does not pressure anyone to vote for a specific candidate, or support a specific ballot measure. "We're there to model civic engagement for the kids," she said.

Texas Educators Vote was created in 2015 to help register educators to vote, to encourage them to learn about the candidates and issues and to encourage voting. "This is popping up because the Legislature has not been friendly to public education, and educators are aware," she said. "I don't think everyone wants educators to go out and vote, which I find disappointing."

Senator Bettencourt sees Texas Educators Vote as engaging in a form of voter coercion.

“You can't force people to register, you can't force them to vote and you can't offer a reward for that,” Senator Bettencourt said. "I was alarmed when I saw the resolution. I was alarmed at how widespread it had been. This is wrong-track advice. It needs to be terminated immediately.”

Click here to read Senator Bettencourt’s letter-of-concern to the Attorney General.

About face…

The Texas Education Agency has cancelled its contract with an out-of-state technology company that it hired to analyze the confidential records of Special Education students.

TEA had contracted with SPEDx, a Georgia-based company that was to look for trends and patterns in Special Education records. But the $4.4 million project incurred the ire of advocacy groups and parents, who said they worried about privacy and the fact that it was a no-bid contract.

“Significant concerns have been raised regarding our agency’s processes and the scope of the project,” Commissioner Morath said. “The efficacy of the project would be undermined without real support from parents and educators alike. As a result, this project cannot proceed effectively. TEA will continue to work with parents and educators to identify methods to improve outcomes for our special education students.”

Earlier this year, TEA hired SPEDx to analyze Individualized Education Plans, which detail the services that Special Ed students are to receive. Those records contain highly confidential information, such as medical conditions, educational performance and family history.

TEA never announced the contracts publicly to parents. Instead, the deal was discovered by Texans for Special Education Reform, a group of parents, educators and other advocates for Special Education students.

The controversial project blew up on a number of other fronts.

In November, TEA’s then-Special Education Director Laurie Kash was disciplined by her boss for criticizing the project. Ms. Kash later filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, complaining that the project didn’t go through the proper channels. She also raised concerns that a TEA employee might have funneled the contract to her friend, an allegation that an internal audit dismissed.

Ms. Kash was fired the night before Thanksgiving. TEA officials said it was because she is facing a lawsuit in Oregon which claims she tried to cover up sexual abuse allegations of a student while working at her former job in that state. Ms. Kash and her attorney say that she has been retaliated against.

“This helps to prove that Laurie Kash was right about the SPEDx contract all along,” Bill Aleshire, her lawyer, said. “Heads ought to roll at TEA, but it shouldn’t have been Laurie’s.”

No lump of coal…

Federal officials have given a health insurance program for low-income Texas children a short-term infusion of emergency funding to extend the kids’ coverage through February.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program will receive nearly $136 million from the federal Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The infusion of federal money will allow the state Health and Human Services Commission, which runs CHIP, to delay sending cancellation notices to parents and guardians of about 400,000 children until after Christmas, spokeswoman Carrie Williams said.

“The projected amount would be more than sufficient for us to cover CHIP clients through the month of February,” Ms. Williams said. “Given this assurance, we don’t expect to have to send client letters this month about any changes in their coverage. And, we’re confident that Texas will receive enough federal funding to continue the program through February 2018.”

House Speaker Joe Straus, R- San Antonio said though the stopgap funding is important, so is Congress's reauthorization of CHIP.

"CHIP is an effective program with bipartisan support, and the children who benefit from this program should never have been put in a position where they might lose care," Speaker Straus said. “I hope Congress will reauthorize the program soon in order to provide the longer-term certainty that working families in Texas need."

Congress allowed CHIP funding to expire on September 30.

Here’s wishing all TSPRA members and their families a safe, enjoyable, and tamale-filled holiday break. EduLege will return on Tuesday, January 9…


EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.