TEA cancels controversial project

The Texas Education Agency has cancelled its contract with a technology company charged with analyzing special education records.

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,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement issued Friday evening. “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 are records detailing the services provided to children in special education. Those records contain highly confidential information, such as medical conditions, educational performance and family history.

The state signed two contracts with SPEDx for a total of $4.4 million. Although billed as an analytics project, most of what SPEDx had been hired to do was to help the state with strategic planning of special education services.

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

Co-founder Cheryl Fries was pleased to hear the contract has been cancelled, but added that “the dismissal of this contract is not the end of the story. Its the beginning of a new chapter to hold TEA accountable and to let them know that Texas parents of children special needs or not are paying attention and should be involved in their planning for our children.”

The controversial project blew up on a number of levels.

For months, Texans for Special Education Reform had been lobbying against the project, speaking about it with TEA officials. In November, the then-special education director, Laurie Kash, was disciplined by her boss for criticizing the project. Kash later filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General, 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.

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 little girl while working at her former job. Kash and her attorney said she had been retaliated against.

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

Last week, Disability Rights Texas and Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education called for a halt to the project because of serious questions about the quality of the project and the lack of transparency. TEA said it would not cancel the contract.

But on Friday evening, TEA sent out a statement to reporters saying it had cancelled the project. The cancellation takes place in 15 days and SPEDx must destroy all the data it has received, TEA says.

Morath has also begun a review of the agency’s contracting processes.

In a statement sent to the Statesman, SPEDx founder Richard Nyankori said that he was pleased to have had the opportunity to work with TEA and “many amazing Texas educators whose passion and commitment to students with disabilities and their families is unparalleled.”

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