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EduLege Tracker 4-3-18

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EduLege Update Volume VI, Number 19
April 3, 2018
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

A state appeals court has ruled that a Travis County trial court should be allowed to decide if the Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness tests were illegally administered to Texas students in 2016. 

Six families from across the state sued the Texas Education Agency and Education Commissioner Mike Morath to have the results of the 2016 STAAR tests thrown out, and to bar them from being used to penalize students and school districts for failing scores. The families said the test did not comply with a law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2015 that required the test to be shortened.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office did not dispute “that TEA administered STAAR assessments in the spring of 2016 that did not meet the time restrictions,” wrote Jeff Rose, Chief Justice of the 3rd Court of Appeals, in the ruling.

Scott Placek, a Round Rock attorney who represents the families that sued the state, says the 2016 STAAR results have had lasting consequences. STAAR results can be used to hold students back a grade level, to label them “at-risk,” and to force them into remedial classes. Poor performance on the STAAR test for five consecutive years can also lead to school closures or a district’s board of trustees being replaced by Commissioner Morath.

It’s not clear how many students, districts, or campuses have been negatively affected by the 2016 STAAR test.

“What the TEA is doing is that it is taking results from this assessment that did not comply with the law, and they’re using them to close schools and take over school districts, and we think that’s wrong,” attorney Placek said.

Mr. Placek also said that a trial will also determine whether the current administrations of the STAAR test are legal or not.

DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Education Agency, said TEA is reviewing the Appeals Court ruling.

Since the STAAR was first administered in 2012, critics have maintained that the tests are too long and create anxiety for many students.

In 2015, the Legislature passed House Bill 743, which required that all Math, Reading, Social Studies, Science and Writing portions of the STAAR be shortened so 85 percent of the 3rd- through 5th-Grade student would be able to complete the tests within two hours, and so that 85 percent of middle school students could finish in three hours.

Shortly after the law went into effect, TEA took steps to shorten the STAAR tests’ length, but the parents who sued claimed that it wasn’t enough to comply with HB 743. The Appeals Court ordered a trial to determine the merits of that claim.

“It is not clear from the record what effect those changes had on the duration of the administered tests,” Justice Rose wrote in the Appeals Court opinion.

Caught by the cameras…
The former superintendent of the soon-to-be-defunct Dallas County Schools bus agency has pleaded guilty to accepting more than $3 million in bribes and kickbacks from a camera company.

Rick Sorrells admitted to receiving the payments in exchange for approving $70 million in contracts with a company that provided surveillance cameras for the agency's school buses. Force Multiplier Solutions of Louisiana has been identified as the company that supplied the bus camera equipment to DCS.

Court documents say that Mr. Sorrells agreed to plead guilty to wire fraud in the corruption investigation that rocked DCS, a school support agency that Dallas voters decided overwhelmingly to shut-down last November. Mr. Sorrels waived his right to a federal grand jury indictment and agreed to a sentence of no more than 10 years in prison.

Prosecutors allege that Mr. Sorrells took payments through a set of bogus companies that he and an associate of the bus camera firm created. The money was used to pay off Mr. Sorrells' credit card and student loan debts, among other personal expenses, prosecutors said. The government is seeking to recover a 2014 Maserati and a 2012 Porsche purchased by Mr. Sorrells, along with about $66,000 in jewelry.

Mr. Sorrells retired as DCS Superintendent in March 2017, as the school agency was in serious debt and teetering on the verge of insolvency, because of the bus camera deal.

Apology accepted…
After calling Special Education students “slow learners,” the chair of the state’s public school finance commission has apologized.

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister, who chairs the Texas Commissioner on Public School Finance, says that he met with Special Ed advocacy group, Texans for Special Education Reform, and expressed regret for his comment. Brister said that he has learned that the preferred terms are “students with disabilities,” or “students who are in Special Education.”

He also said he never meant to question whether students with disabilities are worth educating. He said the question was whether school districts or state legislators should decide how Special Education dollars are spent.

“I apologized for the ‘slow learners’ comment. I know among those hundreds of thousands of students, there are some who are fast learners just like with any group of kids,” Justice Brister said. “I…never said anything to suggest that I think Special Education students are not worth educating. … My issue is that there is a problem between who decides how we spend education dollars on kids who are ahead of the class and who are behind in the class.”

Cheryl Fries with Texans for Special Education Reform said the two hour meeting with Justice Brister was spent discussing the needs for all children and how to pay for it.

“Texans for Special Education Reform appreciates Justice Brister’s apology, clarifications, and the time he took to learn about our children and the children we work for, and we look forward to continuing to work with the Commission, elected leaders, and TEA to make fiscally responsible, educationally-sound progress for all students with disabilities in Texas,” Ms. Fries said.

Earlier, Ms. Fries and other Special Ed advocates criticized Justice Brister after he asked during a work session, “What’s the best use of our education dollars? Should we spend that on the brightest kids or the slow learners?”

No stopping the Internet…
More than 2,200 people have now signed an on-line petition demanding the firing of Katy Superintendent Lance Hindt, after a local businessman accused him of bullying some 30 years earlier.

Greg Barrett—whose legal name is Greg Gay—addressed the Katy School Board during the public commenting period of a meeting recently. While he was in school, Mr. Barrett alleges that he was bullied by other students largely because of his last name, and claims that a young Mr. Hindt shoved his head in a urinal.

Superintendent Hindt has vigorously denied bullying anyone, but that hasn’t stopped the on-line petition from being launched.

The You Tube video of Mr. Barrett’s remarks to the Katy School Board runs 2:19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mClGb6bUBiw&feature=youtu.be

An age-appropriate conversation…
A popular Mansfield elementary school teacher has been placed on administrative leave after an unidentified parent complained to school administrators about the teacher's sexual orientation.

Elementary school art teacher Stacy Bailey was placed on leave after she made inquiries to the district about establishing stronger protections for LGBT students and employees.

The school district alleges that Ms. Bailey was placed on leave because she discussed her own sexual orientation in a manner that was not age-appropriate for her young students.

"The District's concern is that Ms. Bailey insists that it is her right and that it is age appropriate for her to have ongoing discussion with elementary-aged students about her own sexual orientation, the sexual orientation of artists, and their relationships with other gay artists," the Mansfield district said in a statement.

Raised eyebrows…
A new hire by the Austin School District is raising questions about a potential conflict of interest.

In his new role as the district’s Chief Operations Officer, Matias Segura will have oversight over his current employer, AECOM, one of two firms that is currently managing $1.1 billion in construction work that has funded with voter-approved bonds. The firm already has received at least $7 million from the district for its work.

In his new job for the Austin district, Mr. Segura will now be overseeing work that he did for AECOM, an Austin-based engineering and construction firm.

As AECOM’s senior project manager, Mr. Segura led a team that assessed the condition of the Austin district’s 130 schools and other facilities, and shaped the $1.1 billion bond proposal that Austin voters approved last November.

Mr. Segura vows to recuse himself from any decisions that could pose a potential conflict of interest between his previous and his current role.

However, others, including Frank Fuentes, chairman of the US Hispanic Contractors Association, predicts that it won’t be so easy for Mr. Segura to avoid conflicts of interest that will likely be created by his hiring.

Not just for them…
Thousands of teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky walked off the job Monday, shutting down school districts as they protested cuts in pay, benefits, and school funding in a movement that has spread rapidly since igniting in West Virginia earlier this year.
In Oklahoma City, protesting teachers ringed the state Capitol, chanting, “No funding, no future!”

Katrina Ruff, an Oklahoma teacher, carried a sign that read, “Thanks to West Virginia.
They gave us the guts to stand up for ourselves,” she said.

The walkouts and rallies in Republican-dominated states have caught state legislators off-guard.

The next so-called “Red State” to join the teacher protest movement may very well be Arizona, where there is an open US Senate seat, and where thousands of teachers gathered in Phoenix last week to demand a 20 percent pay raise and more funding for schools.

Striking West Virginia teachers declared victory last month after winning a five percent raise, but Oklahoma educators are holding out for more.

Last week, the Oklahoma Legislature voted to provide teachers with an average raise of $6,000 per year, or roughly a 16 percent raise, depending on experience.

To pay for the raise, legislators agreed to increase production taxes on oil and gas, and institute new taxes on tobacco and motor fuel. It was the first new revenue bill to become law in Oklahoma in 28 years, bucking decades of tax-cut orthodoxy.

But Oklahoma teachers say it’s not enough. They rallied for a $10,000 raise, as well as additional funding for local school operations, and raises for school support staff.

About 200 of the Oklahoma’s 500 school districts were shut down yesterday as teachers walked out.

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.