desk and chairs in classroom.
desk and chairs in classroom.
AUSTIN – The state education department spent three weeks vehemently defending its decision to pay $4 million to a relatively unknown startup company to craft a long-term special education plan for Texas and to analyze confidential information on special education students.
That defense abruptly ended Dec. 15 when Education Commission Mike Morath pulled the plug on the project and severed ties with SPEDx, the company hired to do the work.
Officials aren’t saying why the department’s position suddenly changed after weeks of parents, educators and advocacy groups raising concerns with the project and the company hired to do the work.
“We felt like we needed more support from parents and educators and felt the project was not going to proceed effectively without that,” said Lauren Callahan, a TEA spokeswoman.
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Texans for Special Education Reform, a group of parents, educators and disability rights advocates, was particularly vocal, questioning how a for-profit company was going to use extremely sensitive information on students, and why the state did not let other companies compete for the project.
“What started out as a few red flags became a burning fire,” said Cheryl Fries, a co-founder of the organization and a parent of a child with disabilities.
In May, just as the school year was ending, TEA hired SPEDx to mine information on special education students. While the state already collects information on students with disabilities, state officials say they do not have enough information to examine if schools are meeting student’s needs.
The agency was under pressure to show it was committed to improving special education in Texas after a 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation found that tens of thousands of students with disabilities were denied access to services because of the TEA directed districts to limit special education services to no more than 8.5 percent of students.
The U.S. Department of Education spent months investigating whether the state had violated federal law. The report has not been released.
By hiring SPEDx, the state believed it could better understand how students with disabilities performed academically.
For example, state officials say they do not know how many students in Texas have autism. But state officials believed SPEDX software could read students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEP) and determine how many students have autism, the severity of their disability, and how those students are performing academically.
“That is something TEA does not have access to any other way,” said Justin Porter, TEA’s executive director of special populations. “The scale at which we are able to do it with this project is much different than anything we would ever be able to do by hand. You are talking about hundreds of thousands of documents that would have to be reviewed individually.”
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An IEP is a document that details a student’s disability, educational needs and academic goals. The plans are developed by a child’s parents, teachers and school staff. In order to perform the state-level analysis of these documents, TEA was going to pay districts thousands of dollars to participate in the project.
TEA officials said they checked with dozens of education technology companies, state-level education experts and others to determine if there were other companies that could offer a similar analysis.
Only SPEDx could do the work. Penny Schwinn, TEA’s deputy commissioner of academics, said conducting a competitive bid process would cost the agency money and time.
“We had the urgency of now at the agency,” Schwinn said in an interview with reporters a week before the contract was terminated. “Being able to go through the sole-source provision, understanding that we deeply believed that it was a sole source, allows for a much faster contract, which means we can execute things for this school year.”
Parents question project
Fries, the parent advocate, said she and others heard about the project after a school district told parents it signed on to participate.
“To parents, it’s a big fat deal that their child’s very personal information in IEPs has been shared,” Fries said.
In early fall, the group met with the new special education director Laurie Kash and other TEA staff to talk about their concerns with the project. Fries said TEA and SPEDx staff struggled to explain how the project was going to lead to real reforms in the classroom that increased access to special education resources.
“All they could tell us was that they were going to find trends, and they were brainstorming solutions,” Fries said. “How do trends help with individualized education?”
Still, Fries said Kash was receptive and promised to work more closely with parents to address their concerns.
What the advocacy group didn’t know at the time was that Kash had many questions of her own.
Soon after she was hired in August, Kash began questioning the company’s work, according to her lawyer. Kash worried the company was not delivering the information laid out in the contract, and alleges a SPEDx contractor is a friend of a TEA employee.
Kash was fired Nov. 22, a day after she filed a federal complaint against TEA, alleging the agency did not follow proper protocols when awarding the SPEDx contract. But TEA officials said they fired Kash because of allegations that she covered up the sexual abuse of a 6-year-old girl in her previous school district. Two former employees filed a civil lawsuit making the allegations in Oregon days before Kash was fired.
TEA officials have repeatedly denied Kash’s allegation and said the department followed all the proper procurement procedures. But in announcing the cancelation of the project, Morath said he had ordered “a review of contracting processes within the agency.”
Fries said Kash’s firing spurred more parents to action, who began calling their school districts pull out of the analysis. On social media, using #SayNo2SPEDx, many said they didn’t wanted to keep their child’s information private. Two statewide advocacy groups, Disability Rights Texas and the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education called on the state to temporarily stop the project.
“Significant concerns have been raised regarding our agency’s processes and the scope of the project. The efficacy of the project would be undermined without real support from parents and educators alike. As a result, this project cannot proceed effectively,” Morath said when he cut off the project.
A TEA spokeswoman said the agency was in the process of adding eight school districts to the project, but 12 others pulled out of the analysis.
Fries is skeptical that TEA ultimately canceled the project because of parent and advocate concerns, but she said she is proud of that parents and educators kept advocating for the state’s most vulnerable children.
“I would love to think TEA did this for the right reasons, but they never contacted us to say, we heard your concerns and we are going to cancel this contract,” Fries said.
“It feels like they got caught, more than they were interested in doing the right thing.”
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Part 1: How Texas keeps tens of thousands of children out of special education
Part 2: Schools push students out of special education to meet state limit
Part 3: Mentally ill lose out as special ed declines
Part 4: Texas schools shut non-English speakers out of special ed
Part 5: Unable to get special education in Texas, one family moved
Part 6: Houston schools systematically block disabled kids from special ed
Part 7: Special ed cap drives families out of public schools