Groups call for pause on student special education data project

3:10 p.m Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Special education teachers Alyssa Potasznik, left, from the Austin school district, and Emily Miller-Pena, right, from the Lago Vista district, listen intently to Judy Wells, foreground in red, during a 2016 meeting about special education in Texas. A large crowd gathered at the Region 13 Education Service Center in East Austin to voice their displeasure with Texas special education services to a listening board of representatives from the U.S. Department of Education and the Texas Education Agency. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Two statewide groups are calling on the Texas Education Agency to temporarily suspend a $4.4 million, no-bid contract with a company hired to do data mining of confidential special education records, saying the project needs further scrutiny in light of recent complaints.

Disability Rights Texas — a federally created group that advocates for people with disabilities — and the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education say the TEA needs to halt the project until it can answer questions about the way the company was hired, explain more fully how student data is being protected and get more input from interested groups.

“We do think the project has potential to give us good data,” said Kristin McGuire, government relations director with the special education administrators’ group. “We just encourage TEA to pause until these questions are answered.”

The TEA says it’s not pausing anything. The two advocacy groups have known about the project for months, the agency said in a statement.

“(Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education) specifically requested an extension from TEA over the summer so that, in part, more districts could participate,” the statement reads. “Additionally, Disability Rights Texas released a Facebook post several weeks ago encouraging followers to engage with SPEDx in the parent interview component of the project.”

Steven Aleman with Disability Rights Texas said that his agency has more questions now than it did then.

“These issues just came up recently,” Aleman said. “We know more now.”

The call to slow down comes at a time when the project is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education, a move that came after the TEA’s former special education director filed a complaint with the federal agency over the contract with Georgia-based SPEDx.

In her complaint letter, Laurie Kash said that she is worried that parents do not realize their children’s private information is going to a for-profit business, that the TEA should have gotten bids from other companies, and that she doesn’t believe SPEDx can do the work for which it was hired. Kash was fired one day after she sent that letter.

READ: Texas special education chief fired after questioning no-bid contract

The firing also came on the heels of a lawsuit filed against Kash in Oregon, which accuses her of trying to cover up allegations of sexual abuse against a student at the school district where Kash used to work. TEA officials say they could not continue to employ someone facing such accusations. Kash, who denies the claims against her, says she was fired in retaliation for filing the complaint.

SPEDx founder Richard Nyankori, who launched his company in 2016 and received the Texas contract in May, could not be reached. But in a Nov. 22 email to the Statesman, Nyankori said that, while his company is young, he has extensive experience with special education. His team has “highly committed people with a profound personal connection to people with special needs” and said that his company’s specialized work provides valuable insight into special education data.

“Questions will always arise, and we value every organization working to create a better life for children,” Nyankori wrote. “SPEDx is thankful for the relationships we build and will continue to focus our time and efforts on what’s important — helping students with disabilities have great success in school and life.”

Austin opted out of study

At the heart of the dispute are individualized education plans, which are child-specific blueprints for services students with disabilities must receive. These individualized plans, crafted by educators and the child’s parents, contain highly personal information such as academic performance, medical care, psychiatric conditions and family relationships. The documents are protected by federal privacy rules.

Earlier this year, the TEA reached out to districts across the state, inviting them to participate in a project designed to find hidden trends and patterns in the services being provided to special education students in Texas. Districts would be provided $10,000 to $100,000 in federal grant money for sharing that information.

SPEDx could have access to up to 350,000 plans. Scores of districts across the state, including Eanes and Round Rock, have signed up for the project.

Eanes will be paid $10,000 and has provided 1,000 plans to SPEDx. The district joined the project because it could “possibly help us improve outcomes at a local level or at least highlight areas for further discussion or research,” district spokeswoman Claudia McWhorter said. The proper privacy protocols have been established and, to their knowledge, there have been no problems, she said.

The Austin Independent School District, however, decided against participating.

“AISD is very cautious about sharing student data with outside entities,” spokeswoman Tiffany Young said.

Texans for Special Education Reform — a group of parents and other disability rights advocates — raised red flags about the project earlier this year. The group objected to the use of SPEDx, saying the company does not have an established record of special education data analysis and protecting children’s privacy.

They were also concerned that the state did not advertise the project, instead entering into a no-bid contract with SPEDx. State agencies are allowed to enter into such contracts if the company in question provides services or goods that cannot be provided by others. The TEA has said it did a wide search and could not find another firm that did the kind of analysis offered by SPEDx.

“With this information in hand, Texas school districts will be able to significantly improve the academic resources available to teachers who support our special education students,” the TEA said in a statement.

Cheryl Fries, co-founder of Texans for Special Education Reform, said she supports the call to suspend the contract. The group is disappointed with the TEA’s “violation of the sacred trust Texas parents must have that their children’s most personal information is not a product to be exchanged for money for data mining by an unknown for-profit corporation,” Fries said.

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