Mike Morath

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath testifies on school board issues before the Senate Committee on Education, Aug. 16, 2016.

Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune

School districts across Texas now have an option to help make education better for all special education students across the state.

That’s how the Texas Education Agency is promoting the Individualized Education Program Analysis Project.

The project is not without controversy, however.

For one, the company contracted by the TEA to conduct the data analysis is under scrutiny.

Legitimate concerns by a number of organizations “should be properly and thoroughly addressed before moving on with a project that was already brought forth without a bid process and with little warning,” said Rick Beaule, president of the Killeen Educators Association.

On the TEA website, the project is described in detail.

An Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a written education plan developed by a school to meet a child’s specific needs, especially those with disabilities or in the special education program.

The TEA embarked upon the IEP Analysis Project after many concerns had been raised state-wide over the past 18 months about the quality of services received by special needs students, the website says.

The goal is to use the data to gain valuable insight into the state of special education programs, and to make positive changes that will benefit the most vulnerable Texas students.

The TEA plans to collect information from those districts that voluntarily decide to participate in the IEP Analysis Project, and conduct interviews with students, parents, school and district staff, among others.

The TEA will pay districts between $10,000 and $100,000 for the information, depending on how many IEPs a district submits for the analysis, according to information on the Texans for Special Education Reform website.

That is not strictly the case. “TEA wants to ensure that there are no barriers to participation in this free data analysis resource for districts, especially for our smaller and rural districts,” according to the TEA website.

School districts which participate in the project “are eligible for a data sharing grant that is intended to cover the expenses related to data sharing activities (such as staffing costs, technology costs, etc.),” the IEP Analysis Project description reads.

The amount of money a school district receives would depend on the number of students with disabilities that it serves and proportional to the effort it would take to participate.

“The money must be spent to provide special education services to students,” the TEA website reads.

SPEDx, a fledgling data analysis and consulting firm based in Atlanta, Georgia, has been contracted by the TEA to provide services as part of this project for $4.4 million. The awarding of this no-bid contract was criticized by former TEA special education director Laurie Kash, who was terminated from the agency in November.

A letter of reprimand released in regard to Kash’s termination states that Kash accused another TEA employee for facilitating the contract to benefit the employee’s friend.

Kash’s letter of response, also released, details the accusations against the TEA employee and her friend working for SPEDx.

Lauren Callahan, TEA spokeswoman, addressed the matter of Kash’s complaint. “We took the allegations seriously, and conducted an investigation. That investigation by our internal auditor found the allegations to be without merit.”

Texans for Special Education Reform website lists a number of concerns regarding the IEP Analysis Project and SPEDx, including the possibility that students’ personal information would not be kept confidential.

“The agency takes very seriously the need to maintain confidentiality of student information in Texas,” Callahan said. “The IEP Analysis Project contract included a variety of explicit provisions to protect student privacy.”

Beaule, on behalf of Killeen Educators Association, has questions about whether the TEA will be performing just a “box-checking exercise” or do a thorough analysis of the data. Other questions involve how school districts will participate in the project.

Another concern for Beaule is why teachers are only included in the initial information gathering process for the IEP Analysis Project. “After the students themselves, they are the ones most impacted by whatever changes are made, as they are the ones who will have to implement them,” Beaule said.

The possibility that the data collected could be used to generate a privatization program for special education students is another concern for Beaule. “That would be another case of public taxpayer dollars going to private, for-profit corporations.”

The Killeen Educators Association, Texas State Teachers Association and National Education Association all oppose a privatization plan, according to Beaule.

The TEA has said school districts which participate in the IEP Analysis Project will receive reports containing information not otherwise accessible. That information can be used to perform a local analysis and make improvements to a district’s special education programs.

Neither Killeen Independent School District nor Copperas Cove Independent School District replied to questions about whether the districts are participating in the IEP Analysis Project.

The state-wide results of the IEP Analysis Project will be published on the TEA website when they are completed.

The organizations Disability Rights Texas and Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education sent a letter to TEA commissioner Mike Morath on Dec. 5 asking for the IEP Analysis Project to be halted due to the groups’ concerns, according to Steven Aleman, policy specialist for Disability Rights Texas.

On Dec. 13, Morath met with representatives of both organizations, but made no definite commitment to suspend the IEP Analysis Project, Aleman said. Morath did commit to hold further meetings with stakeholders, those most impacted by such an analysis.

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” said Beaule.

254-501-7568 | jferraro@kdhnews.com

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