- Andrea Ball American-Statesman Staff
As special education advocates continue to spar with state leaders over a $4.4 million, no-bid contract to data mine student records, one school district has decided to walk away from the project — at least for now.
Eanes Independent School District told the Texas Education Agency Wednesday that it wants time to re-evaluate its part in the project, which has generated controversy over privacy concerns and whether the company is the best choice to analyze special education records.
“Given the concerns raised by various stakeholder groups, Eanes ISD feels it is in the district’s best interest to stop and take the time to consider next steps,” Eanes spokeswoman Claudia McWhorter said. “We want to ensure the district has adequate and updated information in order to make an informed decision and to be transparent with our school district community.”
Earlier this year, the TEA signed a contract with Georgia-based SPEDx to analyze up to 350,000 individualized education plans, which detail services provided to students with special needs. Those plans include confidential information such as medical conditions, psychiatric care, family history and academic performance. In return, districts were to receive $10,000 to $100,000 in federal money for their participation. About 170 districts across the state have signed up.
The Austin school district is not participating.
Parents of special education students say that not all districts notified them that the plans were being shared with a private company — one of several aspects of the arrangement that has raised alarm.
Meanwhile, the project flew under the radar of special education groups because the TEA handed out the $4.4 million job as a no-bid project. TEA officials say SPEDx was the only company that could do such work. Advocacy groups say they’re skeptical that only SPEDx — which was formed in 2016 and has only done one other comparable project — can handle the job.
Last week, two advocacy groups — Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education and Disability Rights Texas — asked the TEA to halt the project. It declined to do so.
“District participation in the project has always been optional and continues to be,” TEA spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said in response to the Eanes decision.
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Eanes has now asked the TEA not to use its education plans in the study and will not take the $10,000 it was promised, McWhorter said. The TEA could not answer Wednesday whether Eanes is the only district to withdraw from the project.
“I’m confident Eanes entered this project in good faith but as more information has come out, the district made the right decision for our kids,” said Jana McKelvey, co-founder of Texans for Special Education Reform, which first raised red flags about the contract.
Adding fuel to the controversy is the fact that the TEA recently fired its special education director, who had raised concerns over the contract. The TEA says Laurie Kash was fired because she is being sued in Oregon for allegedly trying to cover up the sexual abuse of a 6-year-old while working at her former school district.
Kash’s lawyer says she was fired because she filed a complaint asking the U.S. Education Department inspector general’s office to investigate the SPEDx contract.