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Kent Grusendorf

Who’s to blame for the special education limits

The Lege gets a finger pointed at it.

After a federal report blasted Texas for failing kids with disabilities, educators and public education advocates are pointing the finger directly at state legislators who, they argue, first suggested capping special education to keep costs low.

The U.S. Department of Education last week released a monitoring report, after a 15-month investigation, finding that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized school districts to deny services to eligible students. Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement soon after that criticized local school districts for their “dereliction of duty” in failing to serve students — which touched a nerve for educators.

“We weren’t derelict: the state of Texas was derelict, the Texas Education Agency was derelict,” said HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief ISD and president of the Texas School Alliance, an advocacy group. “We were following what they put in place.”

In a statement sent to TEA and Abbott on Sunday, the Texas School Alliance and school administrator groups dated the creation of a special education cap back to a 2004 Texas House Public Education Committee interim report, which surveyed how other states fund special education and which made recommendations to the Legislature for how to discourage identifying too many students with disabilities.

[…]

The committee’s report recommended the Legislature “determine what aspects of our current funding mechanism for special education encourage overidentification; and then investigate alternative methods for funding special education that decrease any incentives to overidentify students as needing special education services.”

It also recommended reducing state and local administrative costs in overseeing special education in order to direct more money to students with disabilities.

That same year, TEA implemented a system to monitor and evaluate how school districts were serving kids with disabilities. The percentage of students with disabilities served plunged from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016. The U.S. Department of Education found last week that the agency was more likely to intervene in school districts that provided services for more students with disabilities, incentivizing administrators to cut back on services.

Chambers was a central office administrator at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in 2004 and recalls receiving direct and indirect instruction from the state to serve fewer students. “We were under the impression that we were out of compliance if we were identifying more than 8.5 percent of our population,” he said.

See here for past blogging on the topic, and here for the Trib story on the federal report. I will note that the Chair of the House Public Education Committee at the time of the 2004 interim report was none other then Kent Grusendorf, a man who was so anti-public education that he was basically the inspiration for (and first real victory won by) the Texas Parent PAC. So yeah, I have no trouble believing this. As to when it might get fixed, that’s a topic for November.

One more thing about vouchers

I’m going to enjoy this just a little bit more.

The Texas House of Representatives all but killed Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s prized school choice bill Thursday, dealing the powerful Republican a major loss as he struggles to push his agenda through this year’s legislative session.

House members considering the state’s budget plan for the next two years voted overwhelmingly against diverting public education funds to private schools in the next biennium, registering their resistance to a so-called school voucher program and sending a message to Patrick that the bill has no chance this year of passage.

“The House stands strongly in support of our neighborhood schools and our public school teachers and that any scheme, such as a voucher or otherwise that attempts to siphon funds away from our public schools, is not something that would be acceptable in the House,” said Rep. Abel Herrero, a Robstown Democrat. He sponsored an amendment expressly blocking any school voucher program.

Lawmakers, in the midst of a day-long marathon session debating the state’s $218 billion spending plan for the next two years, voted 103-44 in favor of the amendment. The revision declared state money “may not be used to pay for or support a school voucher, education savings account, or tax credit scholarship program or a similar program through which a child may use state money for non-public education.”

The Republican-led House also rejected a follow-up amendment allowing the state to fund a smaller so-called school voucher program limited to children from poor families. The chamber voted that idea down 117-27, signalling that paring down Patrick’s prized Senate Bill 3 will not win it more votes.

“Good-bye SB 3,” Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said from his desk after the vote.

Assigned a low bill number to reflect its importance among Patrick’s priorities, SB 3 would create education savings accounts that parents can tap to pay for private school tuition, home school costs, tutoring or other expenses. The bill would also create a tax credit scholarship program that rewards businesses with a tax break for cutting checks to the state to fund scholarships that could send children to private school. The Senate passed that plan last week on a 18-13 vote.

[…]

With the bill unlikely to pass this year, advocates for vouchers and school choice will use the vote to drive their political activities in the 2018 elections by singling out lawmakers who voted against vouchers, said Randan Steinhauser, co-founder of Texans for Education Opportunity, which advocates for broader school choice.

“This isn’t surprising. The House has always been an obstacle, and there are many Republicans who are not representing their constituents and their school children,” said Steinhauser, who has already gone door-knocking in several Republican lawmakers’ districts to pressure them into voting for vouchers. “This is an opportunity for parents in the state of Texas to see who is standing in the way of educational opportunity.”

See here for the background. I’ll get back to this in a second, but in the meantime, as Depeche Mode advises, enjoy the silence.

A day after Texas House members pointedly approved an amendment to prohibit the use of public money for private schools, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Legislature’s most vocal proponent of so-called “school choice,” has yet to issue a public reaction.

[…]

Repeated calls and emails to Patrick’s office for comment went unanswered Thursday and Friday, although his staff has posted videos of him on Facebook talking about child abuse prevention initiatives and tuition set-asides since the House vote Thursday morning.

Patrick, who has rallied for years to pass a school choice program, assigned the proposal a low bill number to indicate its importance among his legislative priorities. Last week, he and Taylor, the Senate education chairman, pared down the bill to appease senators on the fence about the proposal, agreeing to exempt counties of less than 285,000 unless voters there petition for a voucher program.

Taylor, a Friendswood Republican and sponsor of the bill, did not respond to requests for comment Friday about whether he had been in contact with Patrick about how they would proceed on the measure.

House lawmakers long have said they have little interest in passing SB 3 and Public Education Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, said he did not want to force his committee to vote on the bill. The measure, which passed the Senate 18-13, is now awaiting action in the House.

A defeat on school vouchers likely would not hurt the lieutenant governor, said Jason Sabo, a longtime political observer and education lobbyist. Instead, he said, the House vote shows how politics are evolving away from party loyalty and toward regional and issue-based factions.

“It’s not about party. It’s about place,” he said. “If the largest employer in half the counties in your giant legislative district are public schools, you hate vouchers, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. You’re anti-voucher. ”

Who knew it was even possible to get Dan Patrick to shut up? And with all due respect to Jason Sabo, whose remarks may be a bit out of context here, this alignment on vouchers is nothing new. As this DMN article from January notes, people have been pushing for vouchers, thankfully without success, for going on thirty years. The Legislature came fairly close to fulfilling the wishes of people like GOP megadonor James Leininger, who was then the main force behind vouchers, during the 2005 session. Among other things, this led to the rise of the Texas Parent PAC and its shocking primary win over then-House Education Committee Chair Kent Gruesendorf. Patrick has taken up the banner in the two sessions since he became Lite Guv, but the fight long predates him.

And this is why Randan Steinhauser is wrong. At this point, there have been many elections, mostly Republican primaries, in which public education has been a big issue. Even with the likes of Leininger and then-Speaker Tom Craddick and now Dan Patrick behind them, voucher proponents have basically gained no ground, and aren’t anywhere close to a majority in the House. Hell, we’re at a point where they had to rebrand themselves, because “vouchers” has become a toxic label, and resort to a third-rate astroturfing campaign for their lobbying. Voucher supporters are the definition of a narrow interest group seeking to carve out an advantage for themselves. I’m not going to say they’ll never succeed, because politics doesn’t work like that, but I see no evidence that they are gaining public acceptance. They got the fate that they, and Dan Patrick, deserved.

From the “Anyone can call themselves an expert” department

Now see, this is what happens when you go soliciting expert witnesses on Craigslist

Bloom County was awesome

Joseph Bast, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, is a witness for Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, or TREE, a group led by former state Rep. Kent Grusendorf that is not a plaintiff but was permitted by state District Judge John Dietz to present testimony.

Bast said a taxpayer savings grant program similar to education vouchers would benefit low-income families who could put grant money toward paying for private school tuition.

“If you’re low-income, you’re pretty much trapped in the public school that’s in your direct area,” he said.

Bast estimated that such a grant program would spur about 6 percent of students in Texas public schools to move to private schools, a number he arrived at by evaluating similar programs, including the now-defunct CEO Horizon voucher program in San Antonio’s Edgewood Independent School District.

He said the state saves $7,750 each time a child leaves the public system and, therefore, “the program actually benefits the public schools.” He estimated the annual savings would be about $2 billion.

The state’s previous failure to act on such a proposal “is evidence of the inefficiency of public schools,” Bast said.

[…]

Questioned by Maribel Hernández Rivera, an attorney for one of the plaintiff groups represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Bast acknowledged that he has not graduated from college and holds no degrees in economics, though he considers himself an economist.

He also said neither of two reports he co-authored, which were entered into evidence, had been peer-reviewed.

David Thompson, attorney for another group of school districts, later pointed out that the Legislative Budget Board concluded that the taxpayer savings grant proposal would cost the state money in its first two years of operation. Bast acknowledged that he and the budget board arrived at different conclusions on this point.

“To your knowledge, no government entity in the state of Texas has ever agreed with your analysis of savings, is that correct?” Thompson asked.

“Apparently,” Bast replied.

I figure civil litigators live for these sort of “Perry Mason” moments. I really don’t think I can add anything else to that.

TAB joins school finance litigation

But not as a force for good.

The Texas Association of Business announced today that it will join a school finance lawsuit against the state, demanding a study of Texas school system efficiency.

“The Constitution of Texas calls for the state to provide an efficient public school system, and in our view, clearly the school system is not efficient,” said Bill Hammond, the organization’s president. “Only two-thirds of ninth-graders graduate in four years, and, of those who graduate, only a quarter are what we call career- or college-ready.”

Hammond hopes the suit will encourage the Legislature or the appropriate agency to produce a study into how much it may cost to create a better school system — even if that may cost more than what is currently spent.

“I would not preclude [spending more on students],” Hammond said. “We need an honest broker to do the study on the true costs of educating a child. We’ll deal with the facts as they’re presented to us.”

TAB will be joining the fifth party to sign up for litigation against the state, a group made up of parents. Hammond noted that they are they only litigants in the lawsuit looking specifically into efficiency.

Hammond made the announcement alongside former Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch and Chris Diamond, both attorneys in the case, and former House Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, who heads the organization bringing the lawsuit.

Calling that fifth group “made up of parents” is more than a bit disingenuous. The group in question is Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, and you only have to spend a few minutes on their sparse website to recognize that they’re a front group for charter schools and voucher proponents. Having TAB on their side is further evidence that their involvement isn’t about educating kids but about protecting their own financial interests. As that earlier Trib story notes, they’re there to provide a way out that doesn’t require the Lege to adequately fund public education. It’s not clear yet what role they’ll be allowed to play in the suit; the other plaintiffs, whose interests are not aligned with TREE’s, have not taken any formal action in response to their entry. Just remember when you see vague media descriptions of these guys who they really are. Postcards and Trail Blazers have more.

School finance lawsuit #5

The plaintiffs keep on coming.

A lawsuit by a small group of parents claims Texas is not getting enough bang for its educational buck, and asks the state’s courts to address inefficiencies in how education funding is spent.

Attorneys plan to file their litigation Friday in Austin on behalf of five families who say Texas schools aren’t meeting their children’s needs, as well as Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, a new group formed by three entrepreneurs. The plaintiffs made a copy of the filing available to The Associated Press before submitting it to the court.

[…]

[Lead attorney Chris] Diamond said the latest suit had nothing to do with the Legislature’s budget. He said it is about parents who “feel as if their children are trapped in an unproductive system.”

Going to court to settle school finance questions has been a staple in Texas for more than 40 years. Diamond said that in past rulings, the state high court has issued opinions that “all-but invited” a legal challenge to the overall way Texas pays for its schools.

“We’ve been challenging this funding issue, but we need to hear about the basic, fundamental issues in the system,” he said.

Diamond said the idea would be to have the courts force the Legislature’s hand, and rule the system unconstitutional so as to compel lawmakers to overhaul school finance.

I couldn’t find a website for “Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education” when I first googled them, which is always a bit suspicious. There was just something about what they were saying in this story that gave me an odd feeling. This confirmed it.

TREE’s founder, James Jones, said in a statement that Waiting for Superman, a documentary that highly praises charter schools, inspired him to “dedicate his personal time and resources to the cause of saving children who are trapped in dysfunctional and inefficient public schools in Texas.”

“Imagine if a parent didn’t think their child’s physician was meeting their kid’s needs and the law made it nearly impossible for them to change doctors. We owe it to our kids to do better than this,” said Jones, who runs a mineral royalty firm.

The lawsuit has high-profile supporters: Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch is a co-counsel, and former House Public Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who left the Legislature in 2006, is the executive director of TREE.

In a statement, lead attorney Chris Diamond said the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the question of funding is secondary to the question of efficiency. He said court has “issued a wide invitation for structural, qualitative reform that extends beyond the singular question of adequate funding” which the current system has not met.

Yeah, any group that has Kent Grusendorf on board is not to be trusted. I love how the story says that Grusendorf “left” the Lege in 2006. He left by getting beaten in the primary by Rep. Diane Patrick, who was backed by Parent PAC and who successfully attacked Grusendorf for his relentless hostility to public education. Subsequent googling found this press release for TREE, which in turn contained this website link. I presume Google’s indexing hadn’t caught up when I first went looking. There’s not much there, but at least they do have a website and it does contain their intervention pleading. Any lawyers want to comment on that?

The Statesman has some reactions to this effort.

Lonnie Hollingsworth, director of legal services and governmental relations for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said there is scant evidence that charter schools are more efficient since many of them get substantial private investments to supplement the public dollars they receive.

“It’s clearly an attempt to tag a policy agenda on a school finance lawsuit,” Hollingsworth said. “These are policy issues and they’ve been rejected by the Legislature.”

The group did not file a separate lawsuit but sought to join one of the existing suits.

Lawyers representing the school districts in the original lawsuit have the right to object to including the new plaintiffs. A judge will have the final say.

David Thompson, the lead lawyer on that suit, said no decision has been made on whether to do so. He welcomed some of the group’s arguments while disputing others.

“To the extent that there are allegations that school districts are being wasteful with funds, we strongly disagree and we believe the facts will show that school districts are being good stewards of public money,” Thompson said.

Thompson added that school districts are not afraid of competition from charter schools and are offering parents and children many new options. For example, the Austin school district recently hired IDEA Public Schools, a South Texas charter operator, to run a program out of an East Austin elementary school.

“We need to remember that 90 percent of the school-aged kids of Texas are in our (traditional) public schools, and any competition must be fair and on a level playing field,” Thompson said.

HISD does some partnering with charter schools as well. Go back and listen to my interview with Chris Barbic, the founder and now-former CEO of the YES Prep schools, in which he describes the relationship between charters and school districts as both cooperative and competitive. I will be very interested to see how the existing plaintiffs react to this. I don’t see it as a friendly intervention, but perhaps there’s more to it than I’m currently perceiving. The Texas Observer has more.

Endorsement watch: ParentPAC for Thomas Ratliff

I’m very glad to see that the Texas ParentPAC is getting involved in the SBOE primaries. Here’s their press release for the District 9 GOP race:

The bipartisan Texas Parent PAC today announced its endorsement of Thomas Ratliff for election to District 9 State Board of Education, which includes all or part of 29 counties in East and North Texas.

“Parents and children deserve be represented by a respected leader like Thomas Ratliff,” said Texas Parent PAC board of directors member Pam Meyercord of Dallas. “His focus will always be on educational excellence in our public schools rather than on politics.”

Texas Parent PAC was created by parents in 2005 with the goal of electing more state leaders who will consistently stand up for public education. A broad base of individuals and business leaders supports the PAC’s bipartisan grassroots campaign efforts.

The 15-member elected State Board of Education is not well-known by voters. The board is responsible for establishing policy, adopting curriculum standards and textbooks, and providing leadership for the state’s public school system. In Texas, 4.7 million students attend public schools on more than 8,300 campuses.

“This election has statewide implications, because the State Board of Education sets policy affecting every child and every public school classroom in Texas,” Meyercord said. “Thomas Ratliff will respectfully listen to parents and educators and bring much needed business expertise and fiscal responsibility to this important board.”

He earned a bachelor of business administration degree from Texas Tech University and a master of public affairs degree from The University of Texas at Austin. Meyercord said Ratliff has the analytical skills, integrity, and judgment necessary to make better board decisions on managing billions of dollars in the Permanent School Fund.

Ratliff and his wife Stacy are rearing their two children surrounded by extended family in their hometown of Mount Pleasant, where both graduated from Mount Pleasant High School. Both Thomas and Stacy have served on leadership teams for their children’s public schools and in countless school volunteer roles.

Last year, Thomas was lay leader at Tennison United Methodist Church and is a frequent Sunday School teacher.

Texas Parent PAC is endorsing a small and select number of Republican and Democratic candidates statewide. The PAC describes its endorsed candidates as “men and women of integrity, open and responsive to parents, actively involved in their communities, and committed to investing in public education to achieve economic prosperity in Texas.”

Public school supporters are encouraged to visit www.thomasratliff.com to find a map of District 9 and persuade their friends and relatives throughout the large district to vote for Ratliff during the early voting period February 16 – 26 and on election day, March 2. Texas Parent PAC is also urging parents to volunteer in the Ratliff campaign and/or donate money and in-kind services.

This is great news, and I hope they have the kind of success in knocking off a virulent enemy of public education as they did in 2006 when they hit the scene with a splash by booting Kent Grusendorf. The release doesn’t mention Ratliff’s opponent, but I will: Don McLeroy, who may be the single most malevolent force against students and the curriculum today operating right now, given that the Lege is not in session. I hope the ParentPAC has enough muscles to flex in this Republican race to make a difference, and I hope they’ll be looking at some of the other primaries to see where they might be effective as well.

SciencePAC

Chad Orzel mentions an idea by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum from their book Unscientific America.

Why not form a nonpartisan science political action committee, or PAC, devoted to funding candidates who are either scientists themselves or who make science a strong priority and have good records on science issues? With adequate fundind, the PAC might select, say, five or ten members or candidates to support each election cycle. If there’s a desire to be really aggressive (and we have mixed feelings about this strategy), it could also target science “bad guys”– climate change deniers, officials who promote manufactured scientific controversies, anti-evolutionists, and the like– who deserve to be unelected and give campaign funds to their opponents.

I think this is a great idea, and one that’s long overdue. Having pro-science candidates isn’t something that will happen by accident, or (if you’ll pardon the pun) by natural selection. Putting some skin in the game goes a long way towards making sure the things that are important to you are being represented in your government. The anti-science forces have no qualms about doing this. I see no reason why the pro-science side should stay on the sidelines. I can understand the concern about undercutting the impartiality of science, but when one side is advocating lies and distortions, I don’t see how standing up for the truth is a problem.

And yes, I think it’s as important to target bad guys as it is to promote the good guys. Use the Texas Parent PAC, which has promoted pro-education candidates in both parties, as a model. They put themselves on the map by knocking off State Rep. Kent Grusendorf, the public education-hating chair of the House Education Committee, back in 2006, doing the state of Texas an enormous favor in the process. A pro-science PAC could do a lot more good next year by backing primary challengers to Don McLeroy and Cynthia Dunbar for the State Board of Education, shifting to support Dunbar’s Democratic opponent in the general election if need be. Honestly, this is a no-brainer.

Now Mooney and Kirshenbaum are writing about a national PAC, presumably to affect Congressional races, but the point is the same, and frankly there’s no reason there couldn’t be a bunch of state PACs that take after a national PAC. And if you really are squeamish about raising money for candidates, you can always go the grassroots activism route, though you’ll still need to raise money for it. The bottom line is that the scientific community is operating at a disadvantage, and the sooner it realizes that, the better.

Oh, and if the SBOE’s latest hijinx is any indication, historians should be forming a PAC as well. Clearly, no academic discipline is safe as long as this clown show is on the air.