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EduLege Tracker 1-11-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 2
January 11, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

Oh, for some answers…

Texas Education Agency officials are providing few details about why exactly that controversial no-bid Special Education data-mining contract was cancelled recently.

After spending weeks defending the contract—and the unusual way that it was awarded—TEA terminated its agreement with the Georgia-based SPEDx, the company hired both to analyze how Texas schools serve students with disabilities and to help create a long-term Special Education plan for the state.

The now-terminated contract was a large part of TEA's plan to overhaul Special Education services statewide after a series of extensive reports in the Houston Chronicle disclosed that Texas school districts were denying necessary services to thousands of special needs students at the agency's directive. TEA has repeatedly denied that it directed districts to cap Special Education services to save money.

But critics have questioned why a contract so central to addressing such a priority issue for TEA was awarded to a relatively unknown company without allowing other firms to bid for the job.

When the Texas Tribune asked for more specifics on whether TEA had followed state procurement laws, and whether it is considering other options for improving Special Education, spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said, “Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has ordered a review of contracting processes within the agency. At this time, we are allowing that review to take place.”

Before TEA sent SPEDx a formal notice of contract termination, it had already paid the company $2.2 million in federal funds for services rendered.

“It feels like a very, very disturbing waste of money,” said Cheryl Fries, founder of parent advocacy group Texans for Special Education Reform, which was first to raise questions about the contract.

The unusual agreement with SPEDx had also prompted TEA's newly hired Special Education Director Laurie Kash to file a federal complaint, alleging agency misconduct in the awarding of the contract.

A day after filling that complaint, Ms. Kash was fired.  

She has claimed that her dismissal was due to her complaint, but TEA officials say the termination came because Ms. Kash had failed to disclose allegations that she covered up sexual abuse of a 6-year-old student at her former job as a Special Education director at a school district in Oregon.

Finding a better way…

Twenty Texas districts and charter systems are participating in the pilot program to develop a new system of grading how well they are doing in educating their students.

The 20 school districts and charters participating in the pilot are located in: Alief, Austin, Bullard, Canadian, Clear Creek, Dallas, El Paso, Humble, Jonesboro, Lyford, Midland, Point Isabel, Premier High Schools, Richland Collegiate High School, San Saba, Sharyland, Snyder, Spring Branch, Sunnyvale and Waco.

The Texas Legislature created the pilot last year when it passed House Bill 22, which also delayed some of the most-unpopular provisions of the A-F school grading system.

Under the A-F accountability system, school districts and campuses will receive an overall letter grade and grades in three categories—how well students perform on state standardized tests; how well students improve compared to similar school districts and campuses and how well school districts and schools close the academic gap between different student populations based on race, income, learning disability and whether the student has moved from school to school.

Under HB 22, school districts will be rated under A-F starting August 2018, and campuses will be rated starting the following year.

But in addition to receiving these letter grades from the state, school districts will now have the ability to grade their campuses under the local accountability system that the 20 participating school organizations are helping to develop.

After the pilot completes, school districts across the state are expected to have the ability to implement the locally developed accountability system if they want, beginning with the 2018-2019 school year.

The feds chipped in some cash…

Texas now has enough federal money to keep alive its health insurance program for more than 450,000 uninsured kids and pregnant women through the end of March.

Funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program technically expired on Sept. 30, after Congress failed to renew funding. Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, says the CHIP program can stay afloat thanks to $248 million in funding allocated through a short-term spending bill passed by Congress last month.

Under CHIP, the uninsured rate among children across the country has dropped from 15 percent in 1997 to five percent in 2015. The program also offers prenatal care to about 36,000 pregnant women in Texas. About 394,000 Texas children ineligible for Medicaid are covered under CHIP, and another 249,000 Texan children on Medicaid benefit from CHIP’s 92 percent matching rate. Together, Medicaid and CHIP cover about 45 percent of all children in the state.

"This is good news in the short term, but Congress needs to get moving on a clean, five-year CHIP extension as soon as possible," said Anne Dunkelberg, Associate Director for the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. “The health of over 400,000 Texas kids depends on it,"

Not so good on the GED…

The number of Texans who took GED tests declined by 21 percent from 2012 to 2016, a consequence of the test’s high cost and its difficulty, according to a new study.

More test takers also failed the General Educational Development tests, a battery of exams designed to measure high school equivalency. About 30 percent fewer people had passed during the five-year period examined by the Center for Public Policy Priorities. In 2016, 21,430 GED test takers passed.

“Texas really does have a GED problem. We tend to lead the nation in the number of adults without a high school credential or equivalency. If you don’t even have a high school diploma, you’re pretty much locked out of any kind of career or educational advancement in our current economy,” said Chandra Villanueva, a policy analyst with the organization who herself earned a GED certificate and went on to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

An estimated three million Texas adults do not have a GED or a high school diploma, or 17.6 percent of the population over age 25, suggesting that the number of GED test takers should be greater, Ms. Villanueva said.  

But like the rest of the nation, the numbers of test takers and of those passing the tests in Texas generally have been on the decline since 2003.

The CPPP points to a couple of major reasons for the decline. One is the test has become more difficult and contributing to that difficulty is the computerization of the GED exam, which puts at a disadvantage many test takers who don’t have access to computers or don’t know how to use them, according to the study.

Ms. Villanueva said that Texas should follow the lead of some other states and subsidize the cost of the GED test.

She also recommends that all Texas counties have established GED testing centers.

The hairball grows larger…

Dallas City Council member Casey Thomas called it "an absolute mess that we didn't create": figuring out how it can effectively take over management of the school crossing guard program that Dallas County Schools plans to abandon at month's end.

"We are grasping for solutions," Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune told the council. "We don't have a lot of answers."

Dallas says that it doesn't have the money to operate the program—$2 million just to get to the end of the school year, and $5 million every year going forward. The city also says that it doesn't have the personnel necessary to supervise the 400 crossing guards who are employed by DCS.

The city wants DCS to continue operating the crossing guard program until the end of this school year.  

“Look, this is an ugly situation we're in," Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings acknowledged. “But in some ways I am very glad we're starting to resolve this. There was terrible rot in this organization so I supported the dissolution of DCS.”

In November, Dallas voters decided to abolish the countywide school bus transportation system, amidst allegations of cost overruns, bribes and kickbacks to the agency.  

By the start of the 2018-2019 school year in August, the Dallas school district, and other participating districts in the county, must have their own bus transportation programs in place.

Better than a Bum Steer. Much better…

For donating $150 million to support public schools, and for committing his family’s grocery company to performing invaluable disaster-relief work during Hurricane Harvey, Texas Monthly has named H-E-B Chief Executive Charles Butt as one of its Texans of the Year for 2017.

Texas Monthly said it decided to supplement its annual Bum Steer Awards with something a bit more upbeat.

“Texans are nothing if not optimistic, especially about our own capacity to bounce back from mistakes. In that spirit, we have chosen to recognize a few of our fellow citizens who distinguished themselves in 2017 and reminded us of everything that’s great about living in Texas,” the magazine’s editors wrote.

In additional to Mr. Butt, here are the four other Texans of the Year.

And as for that notorious Texas Month Bum Steer of the Year Award…

For 2017 was bestowed upon Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, R-Houston, in no small part for his attempt to punish transgender Texas students by pushing legislation to restrict which school bathrooms and dressing rooms they could use.

“Right from the start, the bill was a solution in search of a problem, an ill-advised, half-baked, disingenuous stunt that ran a very real risk of putting in jeopardy one of the most vulnerable populations in our state,” the Texas Monthly editors wrote of Lieutenant Governor Patrick’s legislation.

The next edition of EduLege is scheduled for Tuesday, January 16…

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.