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Texas Education Agency

HISD’s plan to avoid state takeover

We’ll see how this works. As we know, the stakes are quite high.

Houston ISD administrators have proposed dramatic changes to 15 low-performing schools that, if approved, could temporarily prevent the state from taking over the district’s Board of Trustees or shuttering campuses.

In a bid to preempt state intervention and improve academic performance, the district is proposing two options for each of the 15 schools: either allow an outside organization to take control of hiring and curriculum, or close and immediately reopen the campus with entirely new staff and programming before the 2018-19 academic year.

Under the latter option, the campus would only serve limited grade levels in 2018-19 — pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in elementary schools, sixth grade in middle schools and ninth grade in high schools. As a result, the majority of students at any close-and-reopen school would be displaced in 2018-19. Each campus would add one grade level in subsequent years.

The sweeping proposal, which remains in the early stages, comes as Houston ISD faces significant sanctions for its failure to improve chronically low-performing schools following the 2015 passage of a law known as HB 1842.

[…]

District administrators haven’t recommended which schools would employ partnerships or close-and-reopen. They are expected to present recommendations at a Feb. 1 board meeting, with community meetings planned throughout the month. Administrators are aiming for a board vote on the changes by early March.

Add this to the other big changes in the works and you can see what an ambitious agenda the board has for itself. Again, there’s a lot there and I encourage you to read it all, and to get involved in the process. There ought to be plenty of opportunities to engage, so if you want HISD to hear what you think about, get out there and tell them.

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 small piece of relief for Harvey-affected school districts

It’s not much, but it’s something.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is not changing state standardized test dates for students affected by Hurricane Harvey, but he is waiving some requirements for certain students, his agency said Thursday.

Students across the state will be still required to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, as scheduled in March and May. But after pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott, Morath sent a letter to Harvey-affected school districts today saying students who fail required standardized state tests in fifth and eighth grade twice can graduate, as long as their local districts officials agree they are ready.

Normally, fifth- and eighth-grade students, who must pass the STAAR reading and math tests to graduate, must take the tests up to three times if they fail. If a student doesn’t pass on the third try, he or she cannot graduate unless a committee of his or her educators and parents unanimously agrees to promote the student.

With Morath’s announcement, Harvey-affected districts will have more leeway to decide whether to require students to take the test a third time and to decide locally whether students who fail the tests can graduate.

Rescheduling the STAAR tests was never really an option, as it would have been disruptive to many school districts. Indeed, a large majority of superintendents were opposed to rescheduling the STAAR. This at least gives some kids who have been traumatized in one way or another by Harvey a chance to stay on track, with their classmates. Morath may still make further adjustments to the accountability system later, which if it does happen will probably be after the tests are taken and we get some idea of how the scores were affected. At least the TEA is being open to suggestion.

School districts affected by Harvey ask for a break on testing

One way or another we’re going to have to reckon with this.

Leaders of school districts heavily affected by Hurricane Harvey told a legislative panel on Monday that they would like to see Texas’ accountability and testing requirements relaxed in the wake of the disaster. They also said the storms have dealt a financial blow and that they weren’t optimistic about being reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or insurance anytime soon.

[…]

Although the state’s accountability system and standardized testing was not on the agenda, it was repeatedly brought up by superintendents and education leaders who testified.

Before the superintendents testified, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said his agency had polled Harvey-affected school districts and found that by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, school districts preferred to keep the current testing windows the same rather than move them later.

That stunned Port Aransas ISD Superintendent Mark Kemp, who helped reopen the district to students in mid-October.

“I’m on all the conference calls and meetings with our local superintendents, and we keep saying the same thing – just give us a one-year reprieve,” Kemp said. “The stress of testing is huge, and on top of that, we have students who have to find their next meal, who have nowhere to lay their head at night.”

Other superintendents who testified Monday said they’d rather have the state hold them harmless for their students’ results than change the testing window. None spoke in favor of leaving the state’s testing and accountability system in place, as is, for storm-affected districts this year.

Katy ISD Superintendent Lance Hindt said his district’s accountability data has been out of whack since the late-August storm. At Mayde Creek High School, for example, Hindt said they’ve seen a 14 percentage-point drop in the number of students who submitted free or reduced-price lunch applications. He said that’s because the district offered free meals through September, so many students who qualify didn’t end up submitting applications on time.

He proposed the state give every campus and district within the federal government’s disaster area an accountability ranking of “not rated – data integrity issues.” Hindt said that’s a designation that already exists and can be used under current law, and that it reflects the situation in Katy ISD and other Harvey-affected districts.

“Why hold districts accountable based on flawed data?” Hindt asked. “The state does not care that parents lost jobs or are living on the second story of their home. If you don’t think that will have impact on accountability, let me come back a year from now and show you how it did.”

I’ve been generally sympathetic to this position all along, and I like the proposed solution from Superintendent Hindt. One way or another, the TEA is going to have to come to terms with the fact that this is going to be a hugely abnormal year for many students. Why not plan to take that into account now?

School districts don’t need gift registries

They need to have their needs met by the state.

Texas school districts ravaged by Hurricane Harvey still need thousands of textbooks, dictionaries and other instructional resources, so the state’s education agency is borrowing a page from the wedding industry to help cover the costs.

The Texas Education Agency has modified its textbook ordering system to create a “wedding registry” of sorts where districts can list the textbooks they need to replace those damaged in the storm.

Textbook publishers, individuals or organizations can then donate the books, as can school districts that have excess inventory.

“It was very clear that a lot of people lost a great amount of instructional materials, including textbooks,” Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said. “If you consider the scale of Harvey, (the registry) is not solving everyone’s problems, but it is helping in places.”

The registry is meant to match districts in need with those willing to donate, and officials say those donations will free up money to cover other costs, such as rebuilding schools.

But some question the approach, expressing concerns over delays in instruction as schools wait for the textbooks to arrive, and the impact that will have on student learning.

“If we had books that have been destroyed, then the state needs to step up and take care of that problem,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who chairs the House Public Education Committee.

So far, 14 districts have created needs-lists in the state’s registry, including Humble, Sheldon and Pasadena school districts.

You can see the registry page here. I mean, I have no problem with providing a way for districts that have surplus supplies to give them to those that need them, but that should not be the first avenue of recourse. Students need textbooks and other such materials today – remember, their standardized test scores are still going to count. As Rep. Huberty says, the districts should just buy what they need and send the bill to the state. Admittedly, I can understand why they might be skittish about that, but if there’s one time where public opinion should be overwhelmingly on their side, this would be it. Let’s not waste any time here.

No big drop in enrollment in area school districts

Mostly good news.

During the height of Hurricane Harvey, school district officials worried enrollments would plummet as thousands of families fled Houston for Dallas, Austin and other drier regions. While many families lost their homes, it seems most relocated within the region and often within the boundaries of their existing school district.

Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, saw only 1,186 fewer students enrolled on Oct. 2 than on the same date in 2016 – a less than 1 percentage point dip. The district does not yet have estimates on the number of students affected by Hurricane Harvey, as the Texas Education Agency is not collecting much of that information until the end of the month.

In Clear Creek ISD, enrollment is up about 240 students compared to last year, even after 261 students in school the first week did not return after the storm. Katy ISD, which saw widespread flooding and tornadoes, saw enrollment rise by nearly 2,500 students at the official 10-day count mark, but more than 2,800 students are now considered homeless because of the storm.

Guy Sconzo, executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition and former superintendent of Humble ISD, said it’s surprising so many students were displaced but still managed to stay in Houston-area schools.

“It’s absolutely incredible, because areas of Katy were hit hard,” Sconzo said. “Obviously people wanted to stay, and I think that speaks volumes to the communities and school districts.”

It’s in stark contrast to the deluge of students who left New Orleans after Katrina and never returned. That’s not to say that all Houston-area or Harvey-affected students stayed in southeast Texas. Dallas ISD enrolled 276 students from Harvey-affected areas stretching from Rockport to Beaumont; Fort Worth ISD took in 112; and Del Valle ISD outside of Austin has 67. Seven storm-affected students went as far as El Paso ISD.

The TEA is tracking where all the displaced students are, though what all this will mean in the end is unclear. I hope that the relative lack of dispersal means that student performance won’t be greatly affected, not so much because I care about standardized tests but because the students are sufficiently cared for and healthy that they can do their best. And if not, I sure hope there’s a plan to deal with that, as compassionately as possible.

Has Harvey changed anything politically?

You’d think it would, but it remains to be seen as far as I’m concerned.

A month to the day after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, the reality of the storm was beginning to sink in on the minds of politicians, policy makers and advocates bracing for a long recovery.

In short, any political plans people had pre-Harvey are now moot.

“Whatever any of us thought or hoped that the agenda for the next session would be, it is going to be overtaken by mother nature,” House Speaker Joe Straus told a full auditorium at the University of Texas Saturday. “It’s going to the biggest challenge that we face.”

[…]

Politicians said it’s still too soon to know exactly what the state needs to do to help the areas slammed by the storm cover, such as how much money it will cost to fix schools and roads and invest in such infrastructure to guard against future storms.

What policy experts and politicians across the board do know is it could take years for the state to recover.

The storm may provide an opportunity for a special legislative session for lawmakers to rethink the state’s school funding formula given property taxes, which schools depend on for funding, are expected to tank in storm-ravaged areas, said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble.

“I don’t believe 1 million children are going anywhere, but their homes have been destroyed,” he said, noting his home sustained $50,000 in damage from Harvey. “I just don’t see any path to victory for the schools if we don’t take this very seriously going forward.”

Huberty wants lawmakers to return to Austin for a special legislative session focused on storm relief. In that conversation, they could rehab the state’s school funding formula to level out funding for districts that stand to lose property tax revenue from the storm.

[…]

Education Commissioner Mike Morath said he’s still undecided about whether to cancel, delay or ease how the state grades schools based on the tests. However, his tone changed from last week when he told the State Board of Education it was unlikely Texas would tinker with the STAAR.

That will be worth keeping an eye on. I’ve been thinking about what would have to happen for me to accept that “things have changed” in a substantive fashion. Two possibilities come to mind:

1. A special session to address school finance. This can’t be just to make payments to districts to cover Harvey costs that insurance and the feds won’t pay, though that absolutely needs to happen, and it can’t be something that waits till 2019 and is the initiative of the House Education Committee and Speaker Straus, because we already know they’re on board for this. It also can’t be used as a vehicle for pushing through the usual hobbyhorses like vouchers or the new obsessions like bathroom bills. The call would have to include both addressing disaster funding and more importantly the overall inequities of the system. The reason why this would be a change would be that it would demonstrate for the first time that Greg Abbott wants to fix this problem, and it would provide him with the chance to separate himself from Dan Patrick. For a variety of what should be obvious reasons, I don’t expect this to happen, but if it does it will be a real change.

2. Someone loses an election as a result of being unwilling to take positive action to abet recovery. I don’t think this will happen because right now the main obstacle to getting things done is Paul Bettencourt, and he’s not in any position to lose a race. The members of Congress who voted against Harvey aid, whatever their reasons for doing so, are all well outside the affected area. If a special session does happen, then that would create opportunities for people to say and do potentially costly things, but in the absence of such, I any current officeholder has much to worry about at this time.

I’m sure there are other possibilities, but these are what come to my mind. Everything else feels like normal business to me. Maybe if the state winds up doing nothing to help cities and school districts cover costs, despite the $10 billion-plus in the Rainy Day Fund, that would count as something having changed, though that’s clearly not what the story is about. I’m open to the idea that “things” will “change” after Harvey, but I’m going to wait until I see it happen before I believe it.

Some schools will have longer days

Seems like a reasonable approach, all things considered.

School days will grow longer for students at 11 Houston Independent School District campuses after the Board of Education voted Thursday night to extend school days to stay in compliance with state law.

The next step is for the Texas Education Agency to grant Houston ISD nine disaster waivers for classes missed from Aug. 28 to Sept. 8 due to Hurricane Harvey. If okayed by TEA, HISD students will likely not have to make up those days during the coming school year, but a handful of schools opening in the coming two weeks will need to make up time.

Superintendent Richard Carranza said the district had three options to comply with the state law: cut short already planned holidays, tack days on to the end of the school year or lengthen the school day.

“There is no perfect situation,” Carranza said. “But we are also very committed to make sure the additional time required for students won’t just be seat time. We’re going to have enrichment activities and teachers informed in trauma pedagogy.”

The lengthened school days will only be in effect for the fall semester. Students at all schools will be on regular schedules beginning in 2018.

HISD’s statement about this, which includes a link to the revised academic calendar, is here. Five early release days were also eliminated, which includes one this Thursday. Existing holidays were kept intact on the grounds that people have made travel plans based on them. Hopefully by the end of the fall semester, everyone will be sufficiently caught up that no further alterations will be needed.

More on recapture and the Rainy Day Fund

There are some conditions that have to be met to get our recapture money back.

Houston Independent School District won’t have to hand millions of dollars to the state to spend at other schools if HISD needs that money to recover from Hurricane Harvey, but the district will have to apply for that money, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Friday.

The same goes for any of the roughly 250 school districts in declared disaster areas that are required to pay so-called recapture payments to the state as part of the “Robin Hood” program that siphons money from property wealthy school districts to give to property poor ones.

Morath, who leads the Texas Education Agency, said school districts will need to apply for the funds with the state and pay any recapture money not need for Harvey recovery. First, districts will have to exhaust their insurance and federal aid before trying to tap that money, he said.

“They have to have exhausted all their other funding sources first,” said Morath.

See here for the background. I get it, we want to make sure that all sources of recovery revenue are fully tapped. Let’s just make sure this doesn’t turn into a reason to nickel-and-dime the school districts, or to bury them under paperwork. The priority is the kids and their schools and teachers. We should not lose sight of that.

In related news, the state may make a bigger commitment to helping school districts recover.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Education Commissioner Mike Morath signaled Wednesday that the state will use rainy day funds to help schools saddled with Hurricane Harvey-related expenses, but the chances are slim that the state will delay state standardized tests planned for next spring.

Patrick, a Houston Republican, made vows to close to 45 superintendents from storm damaged areas in southeast Texas that he would support holding funding at current levels for school districts losing students due to Harvey, and for increasing money for school systems gaining displaced students.

[…]

Morath’s statements came one day after Patrick met with superintendents vowing state aid for storm-related costs not covered by insurance or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The promise came during a meeting Tuesday between Patrick and administrators of school districts affected by flooding.

In a press release sent late Wednesday, Patrick doubled down on that support, but stopped short of promising the state would cover all costs not covered by insurance plans and federal agencies.

The state aid could help prevent deep financial cuts in the hardest-hit school districts, and it could keep districts’ “rainy day” funds intact. Several districts, including Houston and Aldine ISDs, dipped into their reserve funds this year to balance their budgets.

In a statement, Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said Patrick “made it clear that it was his goal for districts to be made whole financially, both in terms of funding related to student attendance and facility repairs.” District officials don’t have an estimate of storm-related costs, but Kingwood High School, home to 2,800 students, will be closed for at least several months due to flood damage.

“The state’s intent to protect schools will help make a very difficult year more manageable, and we are encouraged,” Fagen said.

I’m glad, but I’m not inclined to take Dan Patrick’s word on anything, so I’ll want to see how this plays out. I can’t think of a good reason why the state shouldn’t completely fill any gaps that are left by insurance and the feds. There’s plenty of money in the Rainy Day Fund, and using it in this fashion would help districts avoid painful cuts or possibly tax increases. There needs to be a commitment to getting every district, school, and student back to where they were before the storm. If that’s asking for a lot, well, Harvey did a lot of damage. Are we going to shrug our shoulders, or are we going to be up to the challenge?

HISD may get a recapture reprieve thanks to Harvey

Talk about a mixed blessing.

The Houston Independent School District may be able to avoid paying part – or perhaps all – of its over $100 million state-mandated recapture payment.

The potential reprieve comes after a school board lawyer found a state law allows districts that suffer storm damage to use recapture dollars to help campuses get back on their feet.

[…]

David Thompson, an attorney for Houston ISD’s Board of Education, said the law is meant to allow districts to use what they would have paid to the state to cover disaster-related costs not covered by insurance or FEMA.

“Think of all the things districts spend money on that you can’t insure or reimburse,” Thompson said. “All the thousands of personnel hours, the transportation costs after all the bus routes are out the window and kids are scattered in different areas.”

Thompson said he doubts the law will allow the district to get out of paying its entire recapture bills for the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 fiscal years, which could be over $200 million next year alone. But he said the law will still allow the district to keep a “significant” amount of its local money.

Well, I’m glad that law, which was passed in 2009 after Hurricane Ike, is on the books, and I’m extra glad that David Thompson was sharp enough to remember it and bring it to the state’s attention. The story doesn’t indicate what the process is for this, though I’d imagine that it’s up to the TEA to decide how much recapture money HISD gets to keep and how many times it gets to apply this exemption. HISD’s total costs for Harvey are higher than a couple years’ worth of recapture payments so it’s not a complete solution, but this sure will help. We’ll have to see how the Board makes up the difference.

Don’t expect any STAAR slack

Sorry, kids.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday morning that the state was not likely to let students displaced by Hurricane Harvey delay a required state test this school year — or to change the way school districts are graded at the end of the school year.

“I would say, given the information I have, it doesn’t look likely that we would be able to make too many changes on assessment, and for that matter, on accountability,” Morath told the State Board of Education. “We haven’t made any final decisions yet. But we still want to make sure students know how to read, write and do math.”

Educators and advocates for fewer state tests said they were dismayed by Morath’s statement and hope he will consider waiving requirements for southeast Texas districts that have had to postpone classes. State Rep. Dan Huberty, chair of the House Public Education Committee, said he has heard from constituents on the matter and will hold a public hearing in the next few weeks to consider how the Legislature can help schools impacted by August’s storm.

Huberty, a Houston Republican, said he plans to invite educators from all impacted schools to testify.

[…]

“We had a dramatic and traumatic event just occur that affected so many folks in the southeast Texas area,” said Bret Champion, superintendent of Klein ISD, located just north of Houston. “We absolutely are about teaching rigorous material around academics, but we also provide for an awful lot of social-emotional wellness” for traumatized students.

Champion suggested the state consider moving the test dates back. Klein ISD students missed seven days of classes, as administrators surveyed flooded buildings. Teachers and students are still cleaning out flooded homes, and some have lost everything. “A little more time to be able to assess that would be helpful,” he said.

Two advisory groups of educators, legislative representatives and businesspeople meet twice a year to discuss the accountability system for school districts and advise Morath on how to implement it. Laura Yeager, who has served as an adviser for the past two years, said she will bring up waiving accountability grades for school districts at the upcoming October meeting.

“I’m not sure how they can rate a district or student on growth when they have lost or gained so many students,” said Yeager, who is also a board member of Texans Advocating for Meaningful State Assessment, which has lobbied the Legislature for fewer state tests.

I hope Commissioner Morath will take his time making a final decision. Champion and Yeager have both raised valid concerns that should be taken seriously. It may be that displaced students will do just fine and the overall effect of Harvey will be minimal, but if it isn’t there shouldn’t be a penalty for that. Morath and the TEA need to keep an open mind about this.

What will this school year be like?

School has finally started for most of HISD and many surrounding districts, but with the devastation and disruption of Harvey, what can we expect from this academic year?

Many students in Houston ISD lost everything – their homes, their school supplies, their clothes, their toys.

Some are staying in the mega-shelters at the George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Park. Others were flown by military helicopter to Dallas and San Antonio, where they have already started school. Still more are shaken after being plucked from their flooded homes by boats and Humvees.

With more than 600,000 Houston-area students set to return to the classroom Monday, teachers and school officials wonder how many will show up – and if they’ll be ready to learn.

And at some schools, business as usual will be a distant memory.

“It’s hard to focus on the lesson of the day when you’re worried about, ‘How is my home? How is my family?” said Ezemenari Obasi, associate dean for research in the University of Houston’s College of Education. “Those questions and worries become more salient than the lesson plan at school.”

[…]

While school can help provide some sense of normalcy, Obasi said paying attention to lessons and regurgitating a year’s worth of knowledge during hours-long standardized tests could prove much more difficult for flood-affected students.

He said the brain’s ability to focus can be severely hampered after experiencing significant anxiety, especially for children and teens’ whose brains are still developing.

“It’s really difficult to assess a person’s capacity when they’re not 100 percent available to focus and attempt the task,” Obasi said. “Many things we measure in schools involve students having to focus. They have to have good spatial processing or cognitive abilities, and if you can’t focus, it’s going to be extremely difficult to do anything, let alone ace an important standardized test.”

Obasi said stress can cause a host of physical and mental ailments, from sleeplessness and an inability to concentrate in the short-term to addiction and diabetes in the long-term.

Exhaustion is a real concern, Obasi said, as many have issues falling asleep and staying asleep during times of significant stress. On top of that, anxiety can hamper the brain’s ability each morning to release cortisol, a hormone that helps people get out of bed and going, making such tasks exponentially more tiresome for students.

Then there are the constant distractions – random triggers that will remind students of the worst days of their lives, questions about where their family will live, uncertainty about where their next meal will come from.

There are so many challenges facing HISD this year, from schools that aren’t ready to open and in some cases may never be to teachers who are still dealing with their own damaged houses and cars to students who have been displaced to points unknown. Indeed, quite a few of these students are now homeless, for who knows how long.

The Texas Homeless Education Office estimates that about 35,000 to 40,000 students have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. On top of that, more than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide canceled or delayed classes, some indefinitely.

Jeanne Stamp, the office’s director, said some families have relocated to Dallas and San Antonio but Houston is sure to see their already large number of homeless children balloon.

Federal protections require schools to immediately enroll children who have lost their regular homes, including those affected by a natural disaster.

That federal law allows homeless children to either stay in the school they were attending or enroll in the school in the neighborhood where they are currently staying, with transportation costs divided equally between the two districts if there’s a funding dispute.

The Texas “Third Choice” law goes even further, allowing homeless students the choice to enroll in any school district in the state, regardless of their school of origin or the location of the place where they are staying.

But the state law doesn’t require transportation to be provided, something Michael Santos, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, urged schools to offer in order to comply with the over-arching federal law.

“That falls under the obligation to remove barriers for the student attending school,” Santos said. “Transportation is controversial and it’s expensive.”

For Houston, the transportation issue could be even more heightened as many displaced families are likely to have to commute across the sprawling metro area, between where they want to go to school and where they’re stuck sleeping at night.

“Sometimes public bus passes help get kids to school. Sometimes parents have a vehicle but don’t have funds for gas,” Stamp said. “It is a very costly piece of the service but it’s a necessarily piece of the service.”

Hey, you know what one of the ancillary effects of HISD going into recapture was? They lost state funding for transportation. Hell of a time for that to happen, with all these students needing to travel farther to go to school, right? Layered on top of all that is the takeover threat from the TEA if certain campuses don’t show sufficient improvement on the STAAR test. I don’t know how the state can enforce that threat in good conscience this year given the extreme exogenous circumstances HISD must deal with, but as yet there’s been no discussion, let alone decisions, to that effect.

The point is that this was going to be a tough year for HISD no matter what, but before Harvey hit you could see a path to holding off the TEA from doing anything undesirable. It’s a lot harder to see such a path now. And as bad as HISD has it, some others have it worse. This is why some folks are petitioning for a halt to STAAR testing for the ISDs affected by Harvey. I don’t think that will get anywhere, and to be honest I’m not sure that it should. But I do know that the TEA and the Lege need to take a far more measured approach to accountability this year. No one – no student, no school, no district – should be penalized for having to go through all this.

HISD gets some improvements, needs some more

Mostly good news.

State school ratings released Tuesday showed academic gains across Houston ISD this year, but enthusiasm over the results was tempered by 10 struggling campuses again falling short of state standards, leaving the district under threat of state intervention and even takeover next year without more progress.

District administrators heralded the results, released publicly by the Texas Education Agency, while also pledging to buckle down at the 10 schools that have now received at least four straight “improvement required” marks.

HISD officials were warned last week that a 2015 state law requires either the closure of schools that receive five straight “improvement required” ratings as of August 2018 or the state takeover of local boards in districts with chronically failing schools.

In the Houston area, three other districts had faced possible state intervention if long-failing schools didn’t show improvement. Those districts — Aldine, Alief and Spring Branch — all made the grade Tuesday, removing the threat for those systems.

That left only Houston ISD, which faces a monumental task in the coming months: Turn around 10 schools in high-minority, high-poverty areas that have repeatedly not met state standards. They are Blackshear, Dogan, Highland Heights, Mading and Wesley elementary schools; Henry Middle School; Woodson PK-8 School; and Kashmere, Wheatley and Worthing high schools.

District officials have said they plan to devote additional resources to those campuses, fill all vacant positions in them, and work with local leaders — including Mayor Sylvester Turner — to secure other aid for those students.

“It’s what we wake up thinking about. It’s what we go to sleep thinking about, if we even go to sleep,” Superintendent Richard Carranza said Tuesday.

Still, Carranza saw positives in the results. Of 259 Houston ISD campuses graded by the state, 27 were labeled “improvement required,” the lowest number in the five-year history of the ratings. And after multiple years of failing grades, four campuses — Cook, Kashmere Gardens and Lewis elementary schools and Victory Prep South, a charter high school — met state standards in 2017.

“I’m incredibly excited, incredibly buoyed by the results,” said Carranza, who was brought to Houston a year ago from San Francisco, where he was schools superintendent. “For 90 percent to be performing so well is a great achievement.”

See here for the background, and click over to the story to see the ratings. Clearly, progress has been made, but the question is how much that will count for if some or all of those still-underperforming schools are on the list again next year. The Press has more.

HISD and the TEA

Still catching up on things.

Texas education officials are warning that Houston ISD could be placed under the jurisdiction of state-appointed managers as early as next year if 13 district schools don’t show improvement.

The warning was issued during a meeting [last] Monday between Texas Education Agency officials and Houston’s legislative delegation.

TEA officials told lawmakers that if even one of the district’s 13 schools that has struggled for at least the past three years receives failing accountability marks in 2017 and again in 2018, it could trigger state oversight of the entire district. Alternatively, the state agency could take over individual, chronically failing campuses.

Houston ISD is among 46 independent school districts that could face such sweeping changes thanks to a law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2015 that targets schools that have been in “improvement required” status for five or more years, as of the 2018-2019 school year.

[…]

“Houston ISD is aware of major concerns the Texas Education Agency has expressed regarding several of our schools considered ‘chronically underperforming,'” the district said in a written statement Tuesday. “HISD shares the agency’s concerns and is working closely with TEA on the transformative work we must do at the local level to ensure every HISD student receives an excellent education.”

District officials said Wednesday that state officials told them only eight of their campuses, along with two charter schools it took over in 2016-17, must improve to avoid triggering the new law.

The discrepancy is due to conflicting interpretations of the law. Houston ISD believes its only at-risk campuses are those with six straight “improvement required” ratings as of 2018. The Texas Education Agency confirmed Wednesday that schools with five straight “improvement required” ratings as of 2018 put the district at risk.

Houston ISD officials also said Wednesday that they expect some schools to break their “improvement required” streak in 2017. They declined to specify how many. School districts have received preliminary school ratings for 2017, but they will not be publicly released until next week.

Several other large school districts — including the Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Waco ISDs — also have multiple struggling campuses that could fall into “improvement required” status again this year and in 2018, potentially prompting a state takeover.

Locally, the Aldine, Alief, Brazosport, Galveston, Spring Branch and Victoria ISDs all have at least one campus that could potentially trigger such major changes by 2018.

Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of the advocacy group Children at Risk, said Houston ISD and other districts facing potential state takeover are not in nearly as dire straits academically or financially as other districts that the TEA has taken control of or forced to close. He said data supported the TEA’s closing of North Forest ISD in 2013 and of La Marque ISD in 2016.

“HISD on the other hand, and Dallas ISD — they clearly have many success stories, many good schools,” Sanborn said. “Dallas and Houston ISDs have a lot of high-performing, high-poverty schools, and if you look at Houston ISD’s record in the last five years they have seen a turnaround.

It’s hard to believe the state could do more to enhance that turnaround than what’s already being completed.”

For sure it’s hard to imagine the TEA being better equipped to handle a challenge like that. HISD was good enough to be the landing place for North Forest ISD students – by the way, have we ever seen any data about how those students have fared since the NFISD shutdown? – and I doubt anyone would argue that it’s substantially worse since 2013. I imagine there will be a lot of discussion about this, so I have hope that a sensible solution will be found. The Chron wants Mayor Turner to be involved, and while I think he should have a role as advocate, I’m not sure what more he can or should do, given that HISD is a completely separate governing body. But yes, he should speak out and forcefully advocate for not screwing around with what is overall a pretty successful school district, as should all invested stakeholders. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we should remember that poverty is the common factor among these schools, and while some schools and some students can overcome that, there is a lot more that the state and the federal government could do to help more schools and students overcome it as well. There’s blame that goes beyond HISD, is what I’m saying. Campos has more.

MALDEF gets injunction in recapture lawsuit

From their website:

Please attribute the following statement on a Texas court ruling ordering state education officials to cease bypassing existing school funding rules to Marisa Bono, Southwest regional counsel of MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund):

“MALDEF is pleased that the District Court saw through efforts by the Texas Education Agency to circumvent school funding rules. The court was abundantly clear in its finding that efforts to relieve wealthier school districts of their responsibilities to poorer districts under ‘recapture’ amounted to ‘an inadequate, improper, and invalid attempt at a rule amendment.’ As MALDEF argued, and the court found, state education officials failed to comply with the mandatory requirement that any changes in funding rules must include a fiscal impact statement – TEA’s own witness confirmed that this rule change will cost public schools $88 million a year. We call on the Texas legislature to take immediate and binding steps to bar the TEA from doing this again.”

Read the injunction order here.

Read the jurisdiction order here.

See here for the background. I started writing this before there was any reporting on it, just a bit of chatter on Facebook that led me to Google and the MALDEF statement. Now here is the Chron story.

Just weeks after voters approved a $77.5 million payment to the state in so-called “recapture” fees, the Houston school district could be stuck with another $60 million in fees after a judge’s ruling that the state improperly slashed wealthy districts’ bills.

The ruling, by state District Judge Darlene Byrne in Travis County, temporarily halts an agreement by the Texas Education Agency that allowed the Houston Independent School District and other property-rich districts to reduce the amount of “equalization” payments required to fund public education.

The ruling throws HISD’s recapture bill back into question and could affect more than a dozen other property wealthy districts across the state, though no official list has been released.

“We understand the financial situation even wealthy school districts are in, which is why we’re pushing for school finance reform in the Legislature,” said Marisa Bono, southwest regional council for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights organization that filed the suit.

“But the solution is not to give wealthy districts a tax break on the backs of property poor districts.”

[…]

The deal was cut in February, when TEA said it would give districts such as HISD credit for half of their local homestead exemptions, along with adjustments for student enrollment and property values, to cut the districts’ recapture bills.

The changes were outlined in a Feb. 1 memo penned by TEA Chief School Finance Officer Leo Lopez that were later incorporated into TEA’s recapture manual.

TEA officials at the time concluded the would result in “no fiscal implications to state or local government, including local school districts.”

But attorneys for the property-poor districts argued the state would lose $88 million in funding, causing significant financial loss to local governments.

In a ruling released late Friday, Byrne concluded that the reprieve granted by TEA was “inadequate, improper and invalid,” and that the TEA manual did not contain an accurate financial note describing the fiscal impact of the changes.

She granted a temporary injunction to halt the recapture calculations until the case can go to trial Aug. 11.

Unless the state works out another way to grant HISD and the other districts a reprieve, the district could be forced to pay $137 million. The adjustments for enrollment and property values were allowed to stand, said Bono, the MALDEF lawyer.

So there you have it. It’s very frustrating, especially with the Senate undermining efforts to address the problem. I don’t know what happens next, but I hope HISD and the TEA can work something out that will be accepted by the judge and the plaintiffs.

One last look at the recapture re-vote

There’s a lot at stake here, and not a whole lot of people voting on it.

For the second time in seven months, voters within the Houston Independent School District will determine how – and if – it should pay tens of millions to help subsidize districts that collect little in property taxes.

The vote Saturday comes as some HISD trustees have reassessed a decision by voters in November not to write a $77.5 million check to the state to comply with Texas’ “recapture” policy.

While district leaders don’t think it’s fair that an urban district with many poor students and English-language learners should be slapped with such a financial penalty, they’re split over the best way to respond.

Some trustees argue that Proposition 1 will deal a blow to progress in getting state legislators to rethink Texas’ widely criticized school finance system. They believe refusing to pay will allow the district to sue the state to free HISD of its recapture obligations.

Others believe that voters should hold their nose and vote for the measure, especially with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath threatening that a “no” vote would prompt him to move some of Houston’s most valuable commercial properties out of the district’s taxable area.

That “detachment” scenario has never happened in Texas and could cost HISD $98.4 million in lost tax revenue this year, district officials estimate.

“Either scenario is bad,” acknowledged Glenn Reed, HISD’s general manager of budget and financial planning, adding that the district could end up losing more than 15 percent of its annual budget in a few years under either option. “You get used to living at a certain level, but now you can’t deal with cost increases. You have to start selling off furniture and only eat out once a week. It causes you to change how you do business.”

[…]

While Houston will owe $77.5 million in recapture fees this year, that number will soon balloon to $376 million owed just for the 2019-2020 school year, according to Houston ISD budget estimates. That same school year, Houston could lose as much as $413.2 million under the “detachment” scenario if property values rise (it would lose less than that amount if property values remain stagnant or decline).

Trustees including board President Wanda Adams, Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Mike Lunceford said they now fear vindictive action from the Texas Education Agency and lawmakers if the district doesn’t pay the recapture fees. But other trustees, including Jolanda Jones and Manuel Rodriguez Jr., want the district to hold steadfast in its decision not to pay the recapture fees. Jones said the district could take the state to court and argue that detachment is unconstitutional.

She contends that Houston ISD – the state’s largest school district – has the power to pressure the state to change its funding formulas.

“We can’t debate detachment until there’s an actual detachment,” Jones said. “No district has voted to detach, so that hasn’t been heard at all (in the courts).”

It should be noted that TEA Commissioner Morath isn’t “threatening” to detach properties. The TEA has already identified the properties it will detach. It’s just that the process doesn’t formally take place for another month or two, which is why HISD had the opportunity for the re-vote, which could prevent detachment from going through. Either we buy the attendance credits – i.e., vote Yes on the recapture proposition – or we experience detachment. Those are the choices.

Well, except that Trustee Jolanda Jones argues that detachment is unconstitutional. Which I suppose it could be – I Am Not A Lawyer, remember – but as Jones notes since no district has ever undergone detachment, the issues has not been litigated. I take that to mean that if the No vote wins again, someone will sue the TEA to stop detachment from happening. That does not strike me as the soundest of strategies, but I can’t say that it wouldn’t work. I can say that I personally would not choose to risk it, which is why I voted Yes.

Anyway. To get back to the matter of how many people are voting in this election, the final EV turnout document indicates about 8,500 in person early votes cast in HISD (basically, take the overall total and subtract the bottom five lines, to remove Pasadena, Humble, and Lone Star College from the amount), plus maybe 3,000 mail ballots. That suggests a final overall turnout in the 18-20K range. There’s no way to do a direct comparison to other HISD elections because the Trustees are on staggered four year terms, meaning that in a given election only some of the Trustees are on the ballot. HISD elections are also concurrent with city of Houston elections (though that will be different this year barring an order throwing out the term limits referendum), so turnout numbers in HISD districts are at least somewhat affected by that as well. To give a small amount of context, in 2013 there were 41,392 total ballots cast in three contested Trustee races (the County Clerk doesn’t provide the returns on uncontested Trustee races; state law allows for uncontested races to be skipped, which may be what happens in these cases), while in 2015 there were 76,184 voters in four contested races. Turnout rates ranged from 17 to 22 percent in the three districts in 2013, and from 21 to 28 percent in the four districts in 2015. Make of all that what you will.

Senate approves special ed reform bill

Good.

The Texas Senate moved Wednesday to ban state officials from ever again imposing a cap on the percentage of students allowed to receive special education services.

The chamber voted unanimously in favor of Senate Bill 160, putting the legislation just one step away from the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott, who already has indicated his support of the measure.

That last step, a vote on the floor of the Texas House, is expected to take place soon.

The legislation was filed in response to “Denied,” a 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation that exposed the state’s decade-old cap and revealed that it had denied services like tutoring and therapy to tens of thousands of children with disabilities.

As a result of the arbitrary 2004 policy, which the Texas Education Agency enacted while facing a $1.1 billion state budget cut and without notifying lawmakers, federal officials or the public, Texas now provides special education services to the lowest percentage of any state in the country – by far.

Now, with the Senate passage of Senate Bill 160, the state might be able to erase that ugly distinction, according to the proposal’s sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso.

See here for previous blogging on the topic. The Senate hasn’t done much to commend this session, but this one they got right. Let’s get it passed in the House and signed into law.

Re-interview with David Thompson

Last year, I published an interview with attorney David Thompson, who has worked with HISD for a long time on legislative and financial matters, including on the endless litigation over school finance, to discuss the November referendum on recapture. He clarified a lot of items, such as the wording of the referendum, the things that could be done to affect how much HISD would be required to pay, and what a No vote would mean, and in the end he endorsed a vote against the referendum in the hope of spurring action. Since then, as we know, the Texas Education Agency has indeed taken action that reduces HISD’s recapture payments, and the HISD Board of Trustees has put the item up for a vote again on May 6, with early voting from April 24 through May 2. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to talk to Thompson again about what has changed and why a Yes vote this time around makes sense. Here’s our conversation:

As noted, early voting begins April 24 and runs through May 2. Here are your early voting locations and hours, not just for HISD but also for (deep breath) City of Humble, City of Pasadena, Humble Independent School District, Northgate Crossing Municipal Utility District 2, Northwest Harris County Municipal Utility District 28, Oakmont Public Utility District, and Harris County Water Control & Improvement District 91.

MALDEF files suit over change to recapture

This is a twist.

Texas education officials illegally changed how property taxes are calculated in wealthy school districts, with the effect of substantially reducing the funds available for schools in poorer districts, a lawsuit filed Thursday charged.

The change would cost the state’s poorer schools districts and their students approximately $440 million per year or $880 million for the two-year funding cycle, according to the lawsuit filed by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and the law firms Gray & Becker, P.C. and Ray & Wood, on behalf of Le Feria and Joaquin Independent School Districts.

The La Feria Independent School District in Cameron County and the Joaquin Independent School District in Shelby County want the court to permanently block the newly amended rule adopted February 1, calling it invalid and unenforceable.

“Breaking the rules to once again benefit property-wealthy districts to the detriment of our property-poor districts is not the fix we need for our broken public school system,” said Marisa Bono, MALDEF Southwest regional counsel. “We look forward to vindicating in court our clients’ efforts to ensure fair funding for all students.”

Texas’ system of “recapture” requires wealthier school districts with more valuable property to send some of their tax funds to the state to help fund poorer districts. Those funds are then administered through the Foundation School Program.

The recapture formula assesses the contributions of wealthier districts based on the full value of each property. But those districts may provide two types of tax deductions to residents. The first is a mandated $25,000 homestead exemption. The second deduction allows districts the option of granting an additional homeowners exemption of up to 20 percent of a home’s value, known as a local optional homestead exemption (“LOHE”).

State law allows some wealthy districts to reduce their contributions to recapture and the Foundation School Program by recognizing the LOHE-reduced property values. However, state law provided clear conditions to ensure that poor districts aren’t underfunded. Those conditions required that either state lawmakers appropriate more funding, or that there be a surplus in the Foundation School Program. Until recently, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) interpreted the law to apply only when those conditions were met.

But in February, state education officials issued a statement changing its longstanding rule. Lawyers for the two plaintiff school districts argue that education officials illegally bypassed the existing rule, allowing certain wealthy districts with LOHE’s to reduce their contribution to recapture, without appropriating funds to fill the gap.

“The Education Code provides that the mission of the public education system of this state is to ensure that all Texas children have access to a quality education,” said Richard Gray of Gray & Becker, P.C. “The recent actions of the Commissioner work squarely against that mission and will result in funding flowing only to students in certain property-wealthy districts of TEA’s choosing while at the same time cutting funding to other districts. It is estimated that the recent actions of the Commissioner could cost close to one billion dollars for the 2018-2019 school year and that cost will only increase in future years.”

Under the new rule, La Feria ISD will lose over $225,000 per year, or $1,435 per classroom a year. Joaquin ISD will lose over $48,000 per year, or $1,548 per classroom. These financial losses are reflective of the financial loss that many property-poor school districts throughout the state will incur as a result of the new rule.

The lawsuit comes as state lawmakers debate how Texas will finance public education for the more than 5 million students currently enrolled in schools across the state. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in May last year that while the state’s school finance system met “minimal constitutional requirements,” it needed comprehensive reform.

Read the lawsuit here.

This would of course affect HISD, though MALDEF did not mention them by name in that release. KUHF has the only news coverage of this I’ve seen so far.

HISD is not a party in the lawsuit, but said in a statement that it believes the commissioner’s decision was legal and will monitor the case and “is prepared to intervene if necessary to protect the interests of our students and taxpayers.”

At the very least, this puts a bit of uncertainty into the May 6 recapture re-vote, which the HISD Board is trying to sell to voters. One possible way to satisfy the conditions MALDEF is suing over is for the Lege to make up the difference to the school districts that are affected by the re-interpretation of the recapture rules. Rep. Dan Huberty’s HB21 might be able to do this, in an amended form if need be. I don’t know how likely that is to happen, but it’s a possibility. There are a lot of ways this can go, so we’ll have to wait to see what the defendants, the Lege, and the courts do.

The updated bill for recapture and detachment

Here are the numbers as we now face them.

Houston ISD voters will face a choice of either paying the state’s $77.5 million recapture fee, or risk losing $98.4 million in tax revenue over the next fiscal year, according to new dollar figures given to trustees.

Those were the options presented to HISD trustees Thursday when for the first time school district officials gave firm numbers on both scenarios since voters last November told district officials to not pay the state’s recapture fee. Recapture involves the state’s mandate that the district pay millions to help subsidize poor districts.

Houston ISD faces recapture because, according to the state’s funding formula, the district is deemed property wealthy even though most of its student population is economically disadvantaged.

Glenn Reed, general manager of HISD’s Budgeting and Financial Planning, said the district would end up with less money over time if the state detaches property than if it pays the state’s recapture fee. That’s largely because Houston commercial real estate values are expected to grow in the next five years. If the state takes away some of those properties, Reed said the district will lose out on both those property taxes and any increases in taxes realized through higher property values.

“For HISD, our investment is our properties,” Reed said. “As our properties’ (values) continue to grow, that helps us build schools and fix costs and so on.”

[…]

During the meeting, Reed also reviewed the language that would appear in May’s referendum. It would ask: “Authorizing the board of trustees of Houston Independent School District to purchase attendance credits from the state with local tax revenues.” A vote “for” purchasing attendance credits would mean the district would willingly pay the state’s recapture fee. A vote “against” would mean the state would detach some local personal property.

If HISD keeps all its commercial properties and benefits from increased property values, Reed estimated the district could see its budget continue to grow over the next five years by $66.8 million after the recapture payment is made. If the commercial properties are detached, he said the district could see a loss of $98.4 million in 2017-2018 and would lose any future property value growth.

See here and here for the background. As noted before, I voted No on the November 2016 referendum on the hope that rejecting recapture might spur some legislative action and the knowledge that we could vote again if we needed to. I figured a re-vote would be to possibly reconsider the consequences of detachment if nothing good happened; I honestly didn’t expect a re-vote after a positive development like the TEA reinterpretation of the Robin Hood law. But here we are, and I believe that having achieved a substantial victory, albeit not a complete one, we should grab onto it and move forward. So I will vote in favor of recapture this time around, which by the way will be less than eight weeks from today. I figure the encore vote will have much lower turnout than the original did. Has any of what happened since November changed your mind, and your vote, on this?

Recapture re-vote will happen

Mark your calendars for May 6.

On Thursday, the board voted 5-3, with one abstention, to put another referendum on recapture on the May 6 ballot. Placing a second referendum on the May ballot will cost the district $800,000, according to an HISD spokesman

Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who campaigned in favor of not paying recapture with the first referendum, said HISD called the state’s bluff, and, in turn, the state called HISD’s bluff, but the state has the upper hand.

“The TEA offered this; the TEA is the same agency that has the power to take this district over. If they take over, do you think they’ll send people who care about equity or our kids? Their whole agenda is not about our kids,” said Skillern-Jones, who voted in favor of the second referendum.

But Trustee Jolanda Jones, who spearheaded the effort to reject paying recapture, said the whole reason for the first referendum was to get the Texas Legislature to move on overhauling school finance.

She said if the district pays recapture this year, the recapture fees will keep going up each year, essentially robbing the district of more and more money.

“The only reason they’re paying attention is not because we have a great lobbying team, it’s because we voted no,” Jones said.

About 10 speakers at Thursday’s meeting lambasted the idea of the board reversing its stance on paying the recapture money. Ken Davis, principal of Yates High School, said the TEA’s lessening HISD’s recapture bill is not a favor.

“That’s not a gift -they’re still taking money from our schools,” Davis said. “Push back on that. You are all standing at a time where you set a standard for what the rest of the state does. Stand up and take a step forward.”

See here and here for the background. According to the HISD News Blog, Wanda Adams, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Anna Eastman, Mike Lunceford, and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca voted for the approval of election, while Diana Dávila, Jolanda Jones, and Manuel Rodriguez voted No, with Anne Sung abstaining. I know Eastman was a Yes vote on recapture back in November; she is the only Trustee that I’m certain favored it at that time. I appreciate what Jolanda Jones is saying here, but I lean more towards what Rhonda Skillern-Jones is saying. I think this reduced bill for recapture, which came about after the TEA reinterpreted existing law to give HISD and other districts a break for allowing a larger homestead exemption, is the best we’re going to get without the Legislature getting involved, and I would not bet on that happening. This isn’t the outcome we really wanted, but it’s a lot better than where we began. I think we should declare victory, take the half-a-loaf being offered to us, and make an extra push for a genuine legislative fix in 2019. KUHF and Swamplot have more.

HISD Board to discuss recapture re-vote today

We should find out today if a re-vote on recapture is in our future.

At their monthly meeting Thursday, trustees for the Houston Independent School Board will consider putting recapture back on the ballot.

[…]

In November, HISD voters rejected the traditional way to send a check to the state. Now HISD must pay with actual commercial property – almost $18 billion worth. In July, Education Commissioner Mike Morath is scheduled to detach that property and let another district, such as Alief or Aldine ISD, tax it instead. That’s known as detachment and will reduce HISD’s tax base.

“The only way we can be in this negotiation period is if we do not go into detachment,” HISD Board President Wanda Adams said.

“The homeowners are going to take the brunt of that, not the commercial properties, the homeowners. Right now it’s not a win-win for anyone, but right now at least we have them moving,” she added.

That’s why HISD may give voters another shot at the issue in May.

At the same time, HISD’s bill to the state has dropped by $55-60 million, according to state estimates. That’s more than a 30 percent drop from the original bill of $162 million.

See here for the background. One of the reasons why I was willing to vote No on recapture in November was the possibility that we could have a do-over in May if the Lege did not take action to mitigate the damage. Turns out we didn’t need the Lege to make something positive happen. I believe the No vote provided the impetus for that development. As such, I’m willing to vote for a reduced recapture bill if the Board sees fit to undertake one.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board takes note of the developments.

A re-vote on recapture?

This is very interesting.

After reconsideration of an 18-year-old law, state education officials are adjusting their school finance calculations in a way that could save several dozen school districts roughly $100 million — while costing the state the same amount in revenue.

One of the apparent beneficiaries is Houston ISD, where the change means taxpayers will be sending about $60 million less to the state for public education than they had expected.

At issue is a calculation for recapture — the state’s term for the money that districts with higher property wealth send to the state for use in districts with lower property wealth.

It’s more commonly known as the Robin Hood system of school finance.

Some of those rich districts — “rich” here refers to the value of the districts’ property and not the income of its residents — have adopted homestead exemptions that are bigger than the exemptions mandated in state law. All school districts in Texas have to let homeowners deduct $25,000 from their taxable property values, but districts are allowed to raise those exemptions up to 20 percent of a home’s value.

Not all districts do that, and not all of those that do that are property rich. But some — including Houston ISD, the biggest one in the state — offer the higher homestead exemptions and are also subject to recapture, and they’re the ones subject to the new calculations from the Texas Education Agency.

In a letter sent Feb. 1 to school administrators, the agency’s associate commissioner for school finance said that starting in the current school year, TEA will include half of the money the districts have forfeited in optional homestead exemptions when calculating how much recapture money those districts should pay. That’s the agency’s new reading of a law that’s been on the books since 1999.

“The commissioner thinks he has the latitude to give them half credit for this,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston.

The recalculations would trim those districts’ bills considerably — by $100 million in rough numbers. In addition to Houston ISD, the unofficial list of beneficiaries of the new calculation include Spring Branch ISD, Highland Park ISD, Lake Travis ISD and Comal ISD. Officials with TEA said they have not yet calculated exact amounts for each district but said the $100 million is a reasonable estimate of the total cost this year.

[…]

Houston ISD said Friday evening that the board will consider a do-over and will vote next Thursday on whether to hold another election on May 6 to give voters an opportunity to reverse that November vote.

The effect of this new interpretation of the law would be to reduce HISD’s bill for recapture by about $60 million. HISD would still need to pay a bit more than $100 million to the state, so this is hardly a cure-all, but it’s a significant savings.

To me, this is a win for the No vote on recapture last November. As the story says, the TEA could have interpreted the law in this fashion, to allow districts that grant the higher homestead exemption more credit in the byzantize school finance system, years ago. I believe one reason – maybe not the only reason, but surely a big reason – why it didn’t happen before now is because there wasn’t a loud enough voice demanding the change. HISD’s No vote on recapture was a big deal that got people’s attention and focused some energy on just how screwy the system had become. Another boost to their argument was that HISD was being penalized for having a lower tax rate than it could have had. This particular kink in the way the finances were calculated was one of the things that “No on recapture” advocates like David Thompson pointed out, as it was a simple fix that could be easily implemented and would not only be fair but also have a big effect. Maybe this happens anyway if HISD meekly paid its recapture bill, but if anything should be clear at this point in time, it’s that kicking up a fuss tends to be a better way to get what you want.

Bettencourt’s office put out a press release lauding HISD for scheduling another vote. I haven’t seen any other reporting on this – as of Saturday there was nothing on HISD’s website or Facebook page about this – so he’s either being a bit premature or he’s gotten some verbal assurance that the Board will indeed approve a May election at its Thursday meeting. The Board can claim a victory here, and it should be able to sell the idea of writing a smaller check to the state to its constituents and allies from the last election. I’d be inclined to vote Yes this time around – the problem isn’t fully solved, and even without a big school finance overhaul there are other things that could be done for recapture districts like giving credit for pre-K students, but it’s a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how the Board reacts, and to see if groups like CVPE and the teachers’ union go along. Whatever else happens, this was a good thing.

Lawsuit threatened over special education limits

The clock is ticking.

Disability advocates on Monday threatened to sue the Texas Education Agency unless the state permanently ends its special education enrollment benchmark within the next month.

The advocates said immediate action is necessary because of the “devastating harm” caused by the benchmark.

The state already has suspended and pledged to eventually eliminate the decade-old cap, which punished school districts for giving special education services to more than 8.5 percent of students. But the state has angered advocates by not saying when it will permanently end the policy.

“The time for action to protect and support Texas’s children with disabilities is now,” the advocates from the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities and Disability Rights Texas wrote in a letter to the Texas Education Agency and Commissioner Mike Morath.

Asked to comment on the letter, agency spokesman Gene Acuña said that officials already are working to eliminate the 8.5 percent metric. Changes to the policy should be proposed in the spring, he said.

“As always, we continue to seek input from stakeholders during this process,” Acuña said.

[…]

The letter also outlined the group’s legal theory.

First, the advocates said, the benchmark was inappropriate because states are allowed to monitor school districts “only as necessary to ensure compliance with federal law.” Moreover, they argued, the benchmark actively violated the law “because it directs, incentivizes, and has caused school districts to deny enrollment in special education programs to eligible students.”

The advocates said they would not file the lawsuit if Morath and the agency counter-sign their letter and initiate the process of permanently ending the benchmark within 30 days.

See here for the background; a copy of the letter is in the story. The TEA officially backed off enforcing its policy of capping special ed funding in November, but the policy still remains on the books. From the TEA quote above, it sounds like the deadline given will be too short, so it’s a matter of how much progress they make and whether the plaintiffs-to-be will be satisfied with that. Check back in a month and we’ll see.

Senate to begin studying school finance changes

We’ll see what this looks like.

Leaders in the Texas Senate are vowing to find ways to overhaul the state’s school finance system, saying a recent Texas Supreme Court decision granted them a prime opportunity to shake up the heavily criticized status quo.

On Monday, they announced the creation of a Senate budget working group — led by Friendswood Republican Larry Taylor — to tackle the issue. That group will work with the Senate Education Committee, which Taylor chairs, to propose replacements for the current school finance system.

“The opportunity is huge for us to get it right,” said Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate’s powerful Finance Committee. “We need a whole new method of school finance.”

They’ll face an uphill climb in a session where legislators face several obstacles to major reform, not the least of which is money. The announcement comes a week after the Senate unveiled its preliminary budget, which did not include additional funding for public education.

During the Finance Committee’s first hearing of the 2017 legislative session on Monday, Nelson, R-Flower Mound, advised the newly formed working group to “start with a clean slate” in recommending a new school finance scheme. “It should be less complicated, innovative and should meet the needs of our students,” she added.

[…]

“We’re left with a question mark as to what this effort will mean by the Senate,” said Lynn Moak, a school finance expert at the Austin-based consulting firm Moak, Casey & Associates. The main question is “whether they’re trying to reform school finance within existing dollars or looking for possible additional dollars to fund the system.”

Nelson last week unveiled the Senate’s $213.4 billion two-year budget proposal, calling it a bare-bones starting point for financial discussions in what promises to be a particularly tight-fisted year. That proposal did not touch funding formulas for public education.

The House’s base budget — also released last week — included an additional $1.5 billion that could be spent on public education only if the Legislature reforms the school finance system.

Here’s the Chron story, which has the local angle.

In Houston, where voters last November overwhelmingly rejected having local taxpayers pay the state for $162 million in so-called “recapture” of school funds, HISD Trustee Jolanda Jones said the creation of the Senate group signaled that the message from the ballot initiative had been heard in Austin.

“They’ve done more with HISD pushing back than they have in 24 years of hearing school districts complain about it,” Jones, a vocal opponent of “recapture,” said Monday. “Recapture is based on the premise of Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, but that’s never what it did. It took from the poor and reallocated to the poor. Help me understand why 75 percent of our kids are poor, really poor, receiving free and reduced-priced meals, and you’re taking money from us? It makes no sense; we need more money, not less.”

Because the district will refuse to pay the recapture fee, the Texas Education Agency has threatened to remove commercial buildings from HISD’s taxing district this July so it can give the money to other “property poor” districts.

HISD Trustee Anna Eastman said she hopes lawmakers will act before the TEA takes the property tax revenue from local commercial properties, though she is not sure overhauling the school finance system can be done in one session. But she was heartened to see the Senate look at the funding system.

“School finance can’t be based on some kind of cryptic formula that makes it so kids in a certain pocket are getting lots of money and others are getting little,” Eastman said. “Areas such as ours shouldn’t be picking up all the slack for areas that can’t generate revenue off property growth. It shouldn’t be that big of a gap.”

In Pearland, where local schools receive $9,358 per student, the lowest share in the Houston area, Superintendent John Kelly said that if the state does not increase its share, his district may have to dip into reserve funds to provide any kind of an increase to employees or to meet rising costs. He said lawmakers have been disingenuous in saying they want to lower taxes while requiring districts to raise more local taxes.

“They talk out of one side of their mouth ‘tax cuts’ for people, but on the other side they’re confiscating the increase in tax values across the state,” Kelly said of the Legislature.

That would need to be a part of any overhaul for it to be worth the name. I’m more wary than optimistic. I fear what we will get will be another shuffling of existing funds that will mostly change who’s getting screwed less. I don’t have any faith that Dan Patrick’s Senate will put more money into the system, or that they will alter it in a way that allows for, let alone mandates, covering the costs of growth in a sensible fashion. Let’s not forget that at the same time this is going on, there will be a renewed push for private school vouchers, which will only drain more money from public education. They could surprise me in a good way, and I will reserve judgment until I see what they come up with, but I do not start out feeling very hopeful about this. The track record of the players involved argues otherwise. RG Ratcliffe, who also sees vouchers in this, has more.

New school grading system looks pretty harsh

Brace yourselves.

Schools in poor neighborhoods overwhelmingly received the worst grades under Texas’ new rating system — but even typically high-performing districts got C’s and D’s, according to scores that will be released Friday.

The “what if” grades show how schools and districts could fare in the new A-F system, which won’t take effect until 2018.

The plan to give public schools letter grades has infuriated educators across the state. As of Thursday, 152 districts have adopted resolutions opposing it. Critics say the approach is over-simplistic and stigmatizes poor schools.

Education Commissioner Mike Morath — who cautions that the new system is a work in progress — has said grades will give families a better understanding of how their schools are doing while crediting schools for the progress they are making.

All North Texas districts meet current state standards according to results released this summer. But 11 would have earned an F in at least one of four categories in the new grading system, including Mesquite, Wylie, Farmersville, Lancaster and Cedar Hill. Highland Park, Plano, Allen and McKinney each got at least one C.

“That’s amazing when you consider that they all met the standard two weeks ago and the scores, the data, haven’t changed,” Mesquite Superintendent David Vroonland said. Both the new and old system are largely based on the same STAAR results and other data.

Dallas ISD got a D in student performance and B’s in three other categories.

DeSoto got an F in student performance and in preparing kids for life after high school.

“We continue to wait for more information from TEA on the methodology of the new system, however, this continued attack on public schools, your DeSoto public schools, is an attack on the foundation of our country,” superintendent David Harris said in a prepared statement on Thursday.

“The government ‘ranking’ and comparing schools, feeds the agenda of those claiming our schools are failing and vouchers are the answer. Meanwhile, public schools tend to be underfunded and over mandated by the state and federal governments.”

The Legislature approved the grading system during the 2015 session. Other states, including Oklahoma and West Virginia, have similar accountability measures. But Virginia killed its plan to give letter grades over concerns of fairness to schools.

The Texas Education Agency is releasing grades in four areas: how well students performed on state tests; how much progress students made from year to year on those tests, how well schools are closing the gaps between poor children and their peers; and students’ college or career readiness. Next year, a fifth measure will allow schools to grade themselves on student and community engagement. Schools and districts will also receive an overall grade.

Critics of the system say it doesn’t actually reflect what’s going on in classrooms and will only stigmatize schools in poor neighborhoods that will have a harder time meeting standards. Those schools already struggle to recruit and keep talented teachers and engaged families.

See here for a bit of background. The A-F grading system was part of a larger bill authored by outgoing Education Chair Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock. It generated controversy at the time, but as is sometimes the case when the end of the session is approaching and things need to get done, it was passed in spite of the concerns about that part of the bill. The story above is from the Dallas Morning News, but similar stories are coming in from all over the state.

Various Central Texas districts, including Austin, Leander, Hays, Georgetown, Bastrop, Manor, Elgin, San Marcos, Hutto, Dripping Springs and Elgin received unacceptable grades of Ds and Fs in certain categories, according to a report sent to the Texas Legislature last week that was obtained by the American-Statesman.

Even some nationally ranked campuses, including Round Rock’s Westwood High School and Eanes’ Westlake High, didn’t muster straight As under the new system, and schools that received top marks from the state just a few months ago received unacceptable scores. The grades are meant to give districts and the public a glimpse of how the new system will work when it is finalized next year, and are not official or punitive. The accountability ratings doled out in August still stand.

[…]

Austin school district Superintendent Paul Cruz said having an A through F system is confusing if it is not the same A through F system that people know and understand. Under this system, a school can have a 90 and still be failing, he said, and “that’s not the grading system we use in our schools.”

Blackshear Elementary, for example, is a national Blue Ribbon school, and has been recognized by the Texas Education Agency for the work it has done with a high concentration of students from low-income families. Yet it received an F under the postsecondary readiness category because of absenteeism, he said.

And of course, from here in Houston.

Houston ISD, Texas’ largest school system, earned B’s for closing achievement gaps and learning gains on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness. It earned a C for student achievement on the STAAR, and its lowest mark – a D – came in postsecondary readiness, a stumbling block for many Texas schools.

Educators argue that this new system relies too much on standardized tests and fails to take into account the complexities of individual schools and districts, like whether their student body is predominantly poor or non-native English speakers.

“The real education experts are pretty united on this one. We see it doing more harm than good,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, which represents 68,000 teachers and support staff.

[…]

Katy ISD Superintendent Lance Hindt lambasted the preliminary grades on Friday as an attack on public schools for political gain.

“Our legislators’ ‘ranking’ and comparing of public schools feeds the agenda of those claiming our public schools are failing and vouchers, tax credits, scholarships, etc. are the answer,” Hindt said. “Meanwhile, public schools are underfunded and overmandated by the state and federal governments. Our private school counterparts would never accept funding that tied them to the mandates the Legislature and the TEA place on our public schools – essentially eroding communities’ local control.”

The final system that will be used to calculate letter grades in 2018 is expected to include five domains. Friday’s tentative grades included just four categories, similar to those in the state’s current accountability system.

At least two Houston-area schools, including HISD’s Sterling High and Spring Branch ISD’s Sherwood Elementary, scored straight F’s in Friday’s preliminary grades despite having “met standard” in their official accountability rankings.

At least 78 Houston-area schools, including charters, earned D’s and F’s, even though they “met standard” in the current system. Of those, 12 schools and five districts got straight F’s on the preliminary letter grades but “met standard” in the current accountability system.

The two systems are not meant to be compared, said Lauren Callahan, a TEA spokeswoman.

“When you’re looking at the current system, you really don’t have a good idea as a parent whether your campus barely met standard or they are knocking it out of the park,” she said. “There is a lot more that goes through the A-F system than is in the pass-fail system.”

Still, the mismatched results baffled leaders at schools that earned F’s but still “met standard,” as was the case at Sherwood.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez has filed a bill to rescind the A-F grading system. I don’t think that will pass, but given the massive problems with the STAAR test, I do think some action will be taken, with a delay in implementation being the most likely possibility. As always, you should contact your legislators to let them know what you think about this. A statement from the TEA is here, and the Trib has more.

“Denied”: HISD and special education

There are problems here as well.

Superintendent Richard Carranza announced Thursday that the Houston Independent School District has decided to conduct a detailed review of the way that it serves students with disabilities.

The effort will include asking “independent, third-party experts to conduct a deep-dive analysis of our special education operation,” Carranza said.

The newly-hired superintendent announced the review in a statement, saying it would be the district’s “first order of business when the new year begins.”

“We will have a tough conversation about the importance of serving all children, regardless of any disability,” Carranza wrote. “Together, we will find solutions that serve our children because that is what Houston expects, and that is what Houston’s children deserve.”

The announcement came one day after the Houston Chronicle published a story detailing how Houston ISD has deliberately denied special education services to thousands of students with disabilities over the past decade.

Here’s that earlier story. It’s pretty damning.

Houston schools provide special education services to a lower percentage of students than schools in virtually any other big city in America. Only Dallas serves fewer than Houston’s 7.26 percent. The national average is 13 percent.

For months, as special education has come under increasing scrutiny in Texas, Houston Independent School District officials have described their percentage as a good thing, saying it is the product of robust early interventions that have helped students without labeling them.

But a Houston Chronicle investigation has found that HISD achieved its low special education rate by deliberately discouraging and delaying evaluations in pursuit of goals that have clearly denied critical services to thousands of children with disabilities.

Records show the largest school district in Texas enthusiastically embraced a controversial state policy that has driven special education enrollments to the lowest in the United States. In fact, after HISD officials reduced their enrollment rate from 10 percent to the Texas Education Agency’s 8.5 percent target, they set an even more restrictive standard: 8 percent.

To accomplish the objective, HISD officials slashed hundreds of positions from the special education department, dissuaded evaluators from diagnosing disabilities until second grade and created a list of “exclusionary factors” that disqualify students from getting services, among other tactics described in district documents, court records and dozens of interviews.

Read the whole thing. This is a travesty, and it needs to be fixed. Whatever it takes, this needs to be fixed.

Here’s your chance to give feedback on special education

The feds are coming to Texas to hear what you have to say about it.

The U.S. Department of Education is sending representatives to tour Texas and take comment from school community members on special education, continuing to look at whether the state is denying services to students with disabilities.

Representatives from the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services will join Texas Education Agency officials for “listening sessions” in five Texas cities between Dec. 12 and 15.

[…]

“The sessions provide members of the public an opportunity to comment on the timely identification and evaluation of students with disabilities, as well as the delivery of special education and related services to all eligible children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA,” the advisory reads.

The federal department is also collecting comment on a blog for those who cannot attend any of the listening sessions.

Officials from the Texas Education Agency have been planning the listening sessions with the federal government, working with regional Education Service Centers to secure meeting sites for the five stops, said agency spokeswoman Lauren Callahan.

“The listening sessions parallel with our ongoing efforts on the state level to continue to get feedback on this important issue,” she wrote in an email to The Texas Tribune. “As a result, TEA will have representatives at each stop.”

See here for previous blogging on this topic. I don’t have anything to add beyond saying that this is a great opportunity to be heard and to make sure there is pressure on the TEA and the Legislature to get this right.

TEA officially backs off special education limits

We’ll see about that.

Facing increasing criticism over its special education enrollment benchmark, the Texas Education Agency this week told schools that they must provide services to all eligible students with disabilities and that they will no longer be penalized for serving too many children.

In a five-page letter, Penny Schwinn, the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics, advised school districts that a federal provision known as “child find” requires them to locate and evaluate all kids who live within their boundaries who might qualify for services such as tutoring, counseling and therapy.

“A school district’s failure to meet the child find requirements is a serious matter,” Schwinn wrote. “Furthermore, the failure to identify a child may entitle the child to compensatory education or tuition reimbursement.”

Schwinn told the districts that the TEA eventually would end the decade-old benchmark that has set 8.5 percent as the ideal rate of special education. And effective immediately, she wrote, exceeding the target would not “adversely affect” district performance levels or determinations about whether districts are audited.

A decade of audit threats related to the target has left Texas with the lowest rate of special education in the country. If the state was at the national average, more than 250,000 more students would be receiving services.

But as in the past, Schwinn also defended the policy, saying it was not a “cap” on enrollment and did not seriously punish districts for failing to comply.

“It has been alleged that some school district personnel and others may have interpreted the (benchmark) to mean that districts are required to achieve a special education enrollment rate of no more than 8.5%,” she wrote. “This interpretation is incorrect.”

The letter followed through on a promise to the U.S. Department of Education, which last month ordered the TEA to end the enrollment target and remind schools about the requirement to provide special education services to children with disabilities.

[…]

But some advocates and lawmakers said the TEA’s message was undercut by its refusal to accept responsibility for the benchmark.

“TEA says it understands the complexities of schools differentiating between problems due to disability and other factors,” said Dustin Rynders, of Disability Rights Texas. “In reality, the complexity is deciphering the mixed messages TEA sends schools.”

“We welcome the reminder that schools should evaluate those suspected of needing special education, however TEA is the cause of the problem,” he added, arguing that “TEA has no credibility” because it “keeps trying to sell its preposterous story that the 8.5 percent indicator was not a cap or a goal for the percentage of students receiving special education, while offering no explanation for why they awarded their best performance level to districts that served fewer than 8.5 percent of students.”

See here for the backstory. I agree with Dustin Rynders that we should not just take the TEA’s word for it on this. They have not been been particularly transparent, and there’s no way any of this would be happening if it weren’t for the spotlight that has been shone on them by the Chronicle’s investigation. There’s also the small matter of ensuring adequate funding for all the students who need special ed services, which as we know are not cheap. This does represent progress, but it’s definitely a situation that requires oversight and verification going forward.

“Denied”, continued

Here’s Part 2 of the Chron’s reporting on special education limits.

A few days before school began here in 2007, district administrators called an emergency staff meeting.

The Texas Education Agency had determined that they had too many students in special education, the administrators announced, and they had come up with a plan: Remove as many kids as possible.

The staffers did as they were told, and during that school year, the Laredo Independent School District purged its rolls, discharging nearly a third of its special education students, according to district data. More than 700 children were forced out of special education and moved back into regular education. Only 78 new students entered services.

“We basically just picked kids and weeded them out,” said Maricela Gonzalez, an elementary school speech therapist. “We thought it was unfair, but we did it.”

Gonzalez’s account, confirmed by two coworkers and district documents, illustrates how some schools across Texas have ousted children with disabilities from needed services in order to comply with an agency decree that no more than 8.5 percent of students should obtain specialized education. School districts seeking to meet the arbitrary benchmark have not only made services harder to get into but have resorted to removing hundreds and hundreds of kids, the Houston Chronicle has found.

In San Felipe Del Rio CISD, in West Texas, officials several years ago stopped serving children with one form of autism.

In Brazosport ISD, on the Gulf of Mexico, employees were instructed in 2009 to end tutoring for students with severe dyslexia.

In Northwest ISD, near Fort Worth, administrators told parents that they no longer gave speech therapy to high schoolers who stutter.

And in Alief ISD, two staff members recalled being instructed to falsely suggest to parents that their kids had somehow been cured of serious disabilities.

“I was told to go into all these meetings with parents of kids with different disabilities and tell them, ‘Oh, Johnny is doing so much better. So we want to try him in general education, and of course we’ll give him support,'” said Christine Damiani, who served as the Alief Middle School’s special education chair before retiring last year. “None of it was true.”

Overall, Texas special education students are now 55 percent more likely to be returned to general education Tweet this linkthan the national average, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

They are five times more likely to be expelled to a disciplinary school, the statistics show.

“It’s OK for a child to be moved from special ed to general education if they truly no longer need the services,” said former Deputy Secretary of Education Frank Holleman, noting that federal law encourages schools to re-evaluate special ed students every three years. “But if a child is moved just to meet some arbitrary number, that’s the type of thing that can affect a child’s entire educational career and entire life. That needs to stop immediately.”

See here for the background, and as before be sure to read the whole thing. The TEA has since offered a tepid response, though not a solution, to the situation. Which I suppose still counts as progress. And speaking of such things, one more key person has finally taken notice of this.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick expressed concern Monday about the Texas Education Agency’s arbitrary 8.5 percent “benchmark” for special education enrollments in Texas schools that has driven the percentage of disabled children receiving therapy, counseling and tutoring to the lowest rate in the nation.

“Helping children with disabilities has been a priority for the Lt. Governor even before he was elected to public office and he was very concerned to learn about prior policies,” Patrick’s spokesman, Alejandro Garcia, said in a statement. “Our office is working very closely with the Commissioner of Education to ensure that students are identified and served appropriately.”

The move aligns the conservative leader of the state Senate with state House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who also has expressed concern about the benchmark.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has so far declined comment.

[…]

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she was “shocked and outraged” by the Chronicle’s report on Sunday, in which one former Laredo ISD elementary school speech therapist, Maricela Gonzalez, described how she and other were ordered to purge the special education rolls. “We basically just picked kids and weeded them out,” she said.

Sen. Zaffirini vowed to join with other lawmakers to create legislation to eliminate the special education “cap.”

It is unclear how Patrick, a former chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, hopes to address the issue. His office declined comment.

Such leadership. Kudos to Patrick for finally having an opinion, but it doesn’t mean much until he also has an opinion about what to do about it. The whole reason for this 8.5% cap was to save money. Lifting that cap, or whatever else may be done to address this, will necessarily cost more money. Does Dan Patrick support spending more money on special education, or will he simply demand that the TEA lift this cap and tell the school districts to figure it out on their own? I know which option I’d bet on, but for now at least all we can do is speculate, and keep raising hell about this.

TEA says no more special ed limits

We’ll see about that.

The Texas Education Agency has agreed to stop auditing school districts that give specialized education to more than 8.5 percent of students, officials announced Wednesday, cheering experts, advocates and lawmakers outraged by the policy.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, which had ordered the state to eliminate the arbitrary decade-old enrollment benchmark, officials promised to suspend it and work to eventually end it altogether.

“TEA will send a letter to all school districts in the state reminding them of the requirements of IDEA (the federal law on special education),” wrote Penny Schwinn, the agency’s Deputy Commissioner of Academics. “In addition, TEA will … not use (the policy) for the purposes of interventions staging moving forward.”

But the agency also vigorously defended the policy, saying it was not a “cap” on enrollment, was not meant to save money and did not seriously punish districts for failing to comply. Officials also said they had no evidence that the policy had kept any disabled students out of special education, and they did not offer any plan for identifying and helping children who may have been shut out.

[…]

Advocates criticized the state’s letter, saying that “stakeholder input” is not the same as public input, that the policy still saved money by preventing spending increases as more students have entered the state, and that the state’s explanation for the enrollment drop did not make sense because federal laws have affected all states, while only Texas has had a large drop.

“Disability Rights Texas is disappointed by the Texas Education Agency’s defensive response filed with the U.S. Department of Education today,” the group said in a statement. “Students’ futures are held in the balance while TEA refuses to claim any responsibility for the dramatic decline in services to children with disabilities.”

Earlier in the day, 22 national disability advocacy groups wrote to the TEA to say they were “deeply troubled” by the Chronicle’s findings.

After the TEA released its letter to the federal government, Straus said in a statement that the agency’s decision to suspend the target was “good news for Texas families.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said the department would review the TEA letter.

“Texas addressed multiple questions and issues and included a number of attachments,” said the spokesman, Jessica Allen. “The Education Department will carefully review the state’s response and, after the review is concluded, determine appropriate next steps.”

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for a copy of the TEA’s letter to the US Department of Education. Let’s just say that I’m not prepared to take the TEA’s word for it, and any “solution” that doesn’t involve ensuring that all school districts have sufficient funding to adequately provide for all of their special-needs kids is no solution at all. Until we have assurances on that score, this is all talk and no action. The Trib has more.

Feds intervene in Texas special education mess

Good.

The federal government on Monday ordered Texas state officials to eliminate an 8.5 percent benchmark on special education enrollment enforced in the state’s 1,200 school districts unless they can show that it had not kept children with disabilities from receiving appropriate educational services.

The U.S. Department of Education directed the state to report back in 30 days on the benchmark’s impact and on which school districts across the state may have relied on it to deny special education services to children. Its findings on those districts should include “the specific steps the State will take to remedy the effect of such past practices,” the department said.

“It appears that the State’s approach to monitoring local educational agency compliance … may be resulting in districts’ failure to identify and evaluate all students suspected of having a disability and who need special education,” Sue Swenson, the department’s acting assistant secretary for special education, wrote in a three-page letter to Mike Morath, head of the Texas Education Agency.

“Depending on TEA’s response,” Swenson wrote, the federal government “will determine whether additional monitoring activities or other administrative enforcement or corrective actions are necessary.”

The TEA, which has denied that children with disabilities have been kept out of special education but has promised to review the issue, said in a statement that it “welcomes the opportunity” to discuss its policies.

[…]

Since 1975, federal law has mandated that public schools provide specialized education services to all eligible children with any type of disability.

TEA officials have said state-by-state comparisons are inappropriate and have attributed the dramatic declines to new teaching techniques that they say have lowered the number of children with “learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia.

In response to criticism from lawmakers, school board members, superintendents, advocates and parents, the TEA also has said the policy was adopted in response to a federal effort to reduce over-representation in special education.

Swenson’s letter disclosed that Texas and the U.S. Department of Education have previously discussed the target, in 2014. In that exchange, according to the letter, TEA special education director Eugene Lenz said the districts that exceeded 8.5 percent were not penalized but merely monitored to ensure compliance with the law. He also assured the federal government that the state ensures that all children with disabilities get services.

“However, the information presented in the Chronicle’s investigative article raises serious questions about Texas’s compliance” with federal law and about “the implementation of the approaches Texas described to (the U.S. Department of Education) in 2014,” Swenson wrote. “According to information in the article, some districts view the 8.5 percent (benchmark) as a cap on the number of children with disabilities that may be identified in a district, and in some instances if a district exceeds the cap, the district will be required to develop a corrective action plan demonstrating how it will reduce its special education identification rate.”

See here, here, and here for the background. One wonders if the appearance of the feds will finally stir Greg Abbott to action. Will he bravely defend the TEA’s secret administrative rules from federal interference, or will he maintain radio silence? I’m sure he’s making the political calculations about what he needs to oppose now. Until then, we’ll see how the TEA responds. The Current has more.

Superintendents begin speaking out against special education limits

Good for them.

The leaders of two of the state’s biggest school districts are calling on the Texas Education Agency to stop penalizing districts for giving specialized education to more kids than the agency has deemed prudent.

Superintendents Michael Hinojosa of Dallas and Pedro Martinez of San Antonio came out against the arbitrary enrollment target after a Houston Chronicle investigation found it has led schools across the state to keep tens of thousands of children with disabilities out of special education.

Hinojosa said he would launch a review of special education in Dallas, where, the investigation found, just 6.9 percent of students receive special education services such as tutoring, therapies and counseling – about half the national average.

“I was surprised to see (the special education percentage) so low,” said Hinojosa, who previously worked as a superintendent in Georgia. “I’m used to that number being higher.”

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Richard Carranza, who was hired last month, said he could not yet say whether the target should remain in place.

Already, some state officials have decried the state’s policy, and the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath, has acknowledged it was likely to be “tweaked.”

The state Senate minority leader, Jose Rodriguez, has begun drafting legislation to address the issue.

“It’s important that we address this issue to ensure children with special needs and their families aren’t denied rights established by federal law,” said Rodriguez, D-El Paso, in a statement. “I’m deeply concerned that this arbitrary performance indicator has disincentivized schools from fulfilling their moral obligation, and obligation under federal law, to proactively search out kids who may qualify for special education services and give them initial screenings.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Because I am that kind of person, I will note again that we have yet to hear anything on this topic from either Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick. I’m glad that Sen. Rodriguez plans to file a bill to address this, but I have little to no faith that it will go anywhere in Dan Patrick’s Senate. He just doesn’t care about this. I do have faith that new HISD Superintendent Carranza will have something to say about this, and I hope we hear from him soon.

School district to join lawsuit over STAAR test

Interesting.

Ben Becker, the Houston father who helped organize a legal fight over last year’s STAAR exams, has repeatedly challenged superintendents over the last few months to join him in court to fight for their students.

Becker describes his group as a handful of Texas parents up against the state of Texas, backed by a legal team funded through a crowdfunding campaign. In a year when the STAAR exam went so horribly awry, and outraged so many school officials across the state, Becker says, “as parents [we] look around and wonder, where are the school districts?”

On Tuesday night, one school district is set to answer Becker’s call. Administrators in Marlin ISD, a rural district about 30 miles southeast of Waco, will ask the school board to join the lawsuit filed by Becker’s group in May.

“Marlin ISD will be the first to join this lawsuit as party plaintiffs,” Superintendent Michael Seabolt told Waco station KWTX on Friday, “and essentially that makes Marlin, as a school district, ground zero for state testing accountability reform.”

The stakes on last year’s STAAR exams were probably higher for Marlin ISD than any other district in the state. After four years of low ratings from the Texas Education Agency, the district faced possible closure if its students didn’t hit state goals for STAAR scores — and they didn’t.

Seabolt took over the district in July 2015 when Marlin ISD’s situation was already precarious. He and the district’s staff worked furiously to get the schools on track to meet the state’s targets, he told the Observer, so he’s been frustrated to see TEA sidestep the Legislature’s requirements for the test.

Seabolt agrees with the parents’ complaint that TEA flouted a 2015 law that should have shortened the STAAR exams. Records obtained by Becker’s group show that hardly any of the tests were completed in the time frame required by law.

So if TEA goes ahead with plans to take over or close Marlin ISD, Seabolt wondered, “You’re gonna take that action based on illegal test scores?” He drew a comparison to the state’s low target for special education enrollment, which the Houston Chronicle showed this month has deprived thousands of students of services to which they’re entitled.

“Why is it that TEA gets to pick which laws it’ll do and which ones it won’t?” Seabolt asked.

See here, here, and here for some background. Seabolt asks a good question, for which I look forward to hearing the state’s response. And since he brought up the special education issue, I will note that as of yet, neither Greg Abbott nor Dan Patrick has seen fit to comment on the issue. Too busy with other things, I guess. I’m sure they’ll get to it eventually.