Viewpoints: TEA needs damage control. It can start with parents’ trust

The Texas Education Agency’s abrupt decision to walk away last month from a special education data-mining project — after defending it for months despite legal and transparency questions — was the right thing to do. Now, the agency, which has been under long-standing pressure to improve special education services, must ensure it does right by students, parents and advocates.

The now-scrapped $4.4 million, no-bid contract was among the latest point of concerns among parents of special education students and advocacy groups. Though no investigative body has determined any laws or rules were broken, a federal investigators are looking into the contract. Meanwhile, the agency’s procurement policies are under internal review.

“Quite simply, on this project we failed to live up to the standards our students deserve, and I take full responsibility for that,” Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement to this board. Morath said he canceled the contract and the project, ordered a review of contracting processes, and will work to “ensure these kinds of administrative missteps” aren’t repeated.

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“In order to regain the trust of our students, we’re stepping up our planning efforts with special education stakeholders to chart a better path forward to improve special education in Texas,” Morath said. The agency will begin holding monthly meetings with parents in addition to the quarterly meetings it already has with advocacy groups, officials told us.

More transparency is needed if the Texas Education Agency is to rebuild trust. Giving parents and advocacy groups a seat at the table will go also a long way in successfully serving special education students.

Parents of students with special needs know the intricacies of special education. They and their advocates live it every day as they champion the voices of students who often are easily dismissed and marginalized. As such, they also are closer to solutions and have plenty to say.

Yet, parents and special education advocates were kept in the dark when the Texas Education Agency decided to initiate its Individualized Education Program Analysis Project, the American-Statesman’s Andrea Ball reported. The project was meant to look for patterns in students’ individualized special education plans, which detail the services provided to children in special education.

Collecting such data from student records, agency leaders said, would be used to improve services for student with special needs. Though well-intentioned, the project was marred with controversy of the agency’s own doing.

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Advocates and parents raised legitimate concerns over the agency’s move to award two no-bid contracts for a total of $4.4 million to SPEDx, a Georgia analytic company with a limited track record in special education analysis. The no-bid designation – legally permitted if an agency can prove that the services provided by the sole bidder can’t be found elsewhere – was debatable, at best.

When TEA began negotiations with SPEDx, the company had worked on only one yet-to-be-completed special education analysis project in Louisiana. The Texas contract, however, called for far more detailed state- and district-level analyses, records show.

Draft copies of the Louisiana report show that SPEDx recommended the state curtail special education services as a solution. That recommendation raised concerns. Texas, after all, is failing to provide proper special education services to thousands of Texas children.

A 2016 investigation by the Houston Chronicle found the Texas Education Agency had quietly put in place a policy that encouraged school districts to cap their special education enrollment at no more than 8.5 percent of the total student population. Based on that arbitrary number, children were denied services. Though federal law is supposed to protect children with disabilities, the cap existed under the leadership of five Texas education commissioners, including Morath.

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Parents and advocates demanded change and were instrumental in getting legislation in 2017 that now lifts the caps.

As a result, special education enrollment has increased to 8.9 percent, according to the latest Texas Education Agency data. During the 2016-17 school year, there were 477,281 students who received special education services. That’s 14,000 more students than the previous year. Still, more work is needed. Texas still lags the national average, where 13 percent of public school students received special education services in 2016.

The quick, determined reaction by parents and advocates prompted a change in how Texas Education Agency addresses the needs of special education students. Progress, however, may come even faster if these groups are engaged from the start of any new agency initiatives. It’s up to the agency to provide that seat at the table.

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