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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.

Bathroom bills are floundering

Good.

Bills to curtail transgender people’s access to public restrooms are pending in about a dozen states, but even in conservative bastions such as Texas and Arkansas they may be doomed by high-powered opposition.

The bills have taken on a new significance this week following the decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to revoke an Obama-era federal directive instructing public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms of their chosen gender. Many conservative leaders hailed the assertions by top Trump appointees that the issue was best handled at the state and local level.

Yet at the state level, bills that would limit transgender bathroom access are floundering even though nearly all have surfaced in Republican-controlled legislatures that share common ground politically with Trump. In none of the states with pending bills does passage seem assured; there’s been vigorous opposition from business groups and a notable lack of support from several GOP governors.

The chief reason, according to transgender-rights leaders, is the backlash that hit North Carolina after its legislature approved a bill in March 2016 requiring transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates. Several major sports organizations shifted events away from North Carolina, and businesses such as PayPal decided not to expand in the state. In November, Republican Pat McCrory, who signed and defended the bill, became the only incumbent governor to lose in the general election.

[…]

National LGBT-rights groups are closely monitoring the fluctuations, recalling how North Carolina politicians took activists by surprise last year when they passed the divisive bathroom bill in a fast-paced special session.

“That experience makes us very wary about when and how legislation will move,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. “On the other hand, the American public has been incredibly vocal against these bills… so we’re hopeful that legislators have learned a lesson from North Carolina.”

Even if all the new bathroom bills fail, Warbelow said activists will continue to push for explicit and effective federal protections for transgender students — protections have been undercut by this week’s revocation of the Obama-era guidance.

In addition to Arkansas, I counted fourteen other states where legislators have tried or are trying to pass a North Carolina-like bill, though none of the ones that are trying are getting any traction. The fact that states like South Dakota and Kentucky have explicitly rejected such bills should give you some idea of how far out on a limb Texas would be if we follow Dan Patrick and pass SB6. All these other states saw what happened in North Carolina, and they have stepped back from the abyss. Are we really dumber than they all are? Call Dan Patrick’s office, as so many others have, and ask him that.

Trump Justice Department to drop appeals in transgender bathroom directive case

From ThinkProgress:

The Trump administration has elected not to contest a Texas federal judge’s injunction barring the federal government from implementing Obama administration guidelines that protect transgender kids in schools.

Oral arguments for the Obama Justice Department’s appeal of the judge’s decision were scheduled for Tuesday. The DOJ cancelled them in a legal brief submitted Friday.

“Defendants-appellants hereby withdraw their pending November 23, 2016 motion for partial stay pending appeal,” the brief says. “The parties jointly move to remove from the Court’s calendar the February 14, 2017 oral argument currently scheduled for that motion. The parties are currently considering how best to proceed.”

That brief was filed the day after Jeff Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General.

As ThinkProgress reported last August, the Obama administration’s guidance “stated that Title IX’s nondiscrimination protections on the basis of ‘sex’ protect transgender students in accordance with their gender identity, such that they must be allowed to use the bathrooms and play on sports teams that match their gender.” But the brief filed Friday signals that the Trump administration no longer wants to implement that guidance.

See here, here, and here for the background. I suppose some other group could try to enter the proceedings at this point in place of the feds, but there’s nothing to stop Dear Leader from rescinding this executive order, which would moot the whole thing. We’re clearly not going to move forward in the next few years, so we’re going to have to fight to not move back.

Feds officially file appeal in transgender bathroom directive lawsuit

This may be the last stop.

With two weeks left, the Obama administration has asked a federal appeals court to throw out a lower court’s decision that suspended policies designed to protect transgender people’s access to restrooms — a sign the current leadership of the Justice Department will close shop mid-fight on one of its signature LGBT issues.

Federal lawyers said in a brief filed Friday with the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that the previous ruling was incorrect and overly broad.

[…]

With their remedies waning in the lower court — and time running out — the Justice Department’s Civil Division made three arguments to the Fifth Circuit.

The Justice Department said the case is not ripe for judicial review because the government did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act, as Texas and the other states claimed. The guidance for schools and workplaces are not final acts by any agency, the appeal says, and therefore did not require a rule-making process under the APA.

Federal lawyers further contend the states lack standing to bring the case because they “can ignore [the guidance] without legal consequence.” They note that enforcement stems from civil rights laws, not the guidance itself. In the past, the states have bristled at that argument, noting in briefs and oral arguments that the government cited the guidance when threatening to sue school districts that banned transgender students from certain facilities.

Finally, the Justice Department argues that the lower court, under Judge O’Connor, erred by ruling too broadly. O’Connor did so by in applying the injunction nationwide, rather than just within the states that brought the lawsuit, the government lawyers say.

See here and here for the background. As Kerry Eleveld notes, Judge O’Connor cited the fact that this directive did not go through the federal rule-making process in his injunction against it, but other directives, including the health directive that O’Connor also injuncted, did go through that process. As always, it sucks to have to depend on the Fifth Circuit for anything, but there’s not much choice. We’ll see what happens.

Another take on the potty drama

Ross Ramsey plunges in, and no I don’t regret that at all.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants lawmakers to take a bathroom break, and you can’t blame him for trying to find relief.

The next legislative session hasn’t even started and regulation of which restrooms transgender Texans use is getting the kind of attention usually reserved for taxes and immigration.

Abbott told reporters last week that he wants to wait and see what lawmakers come up with before he’ll take a position. At a forum last month, House Speaker Joe Straus downplayed the issue in a different way, saying it’s not “the most urgent concern of mine.”

If those two officials sounded mild to untrained ears, they were perfectly clear to those with political antennae. Their intended audience knows that this issue is not on the fast track some in their party want it to be on.

A slowdown might turn the bathroom fight to the back burner. Republicans attribute it to a directive from the federal Department of Education on how school districts should deal with the needs of transgender students.

Abbott doesn’t like the federal directive and tweeted his support for the state’s challenge to it early last summer.

But he is unwilling, at this point, to endorse legislative efforts to remedy the situation. The policy questions around facilities and transgender people are complicated and the politics are gnarly.

[…]

It’s always possible that the incoming Republican administration in Washington will retract that initial federal directive and remove the declared reason for state action — the kind of bureaucratic “never mind” that could ease the political pressure for new laws.

The courts might take care of that for them. A federal judge in Texas already put the federal rules on hold, saying the feds didn’t jump through the right hoops when putting the regulation into effect. The Obama administration is appealing that ruling.

It is already clear that the drum major at the front of this particular parade in Texas — Patrick — is trying different variations of a transgender bathroom bill to find an acceptable option. Sen.-elect Dawn Buckingham, R-Lake Travis, said earlier this month that “my understanding is the businesses, the sporting venues, will not be affected by this law” — i.e. the bill could be limited to schools and other public buildings.

That might solve some problems. But the North Carolina law was aimed only at public buildings and still ran into opposition from businesses and from sports groups like the NCAA and the NBA.

A lot of this is stuff that we’ve talked about before. I’m glad to see someone other than me read the Buckingham and Abbott statements as showing the effect of business lobby arm-twisting, though I remain concerned that those folks will cut and run at their first opportunity to declare victory. But it seems clear now that they are making a difference, and that’s all to the good. Those of us who want to see this dead and buried and not just neutralized need to keep the pressure on to make that happen.

Abbott says something about bathrooms

Typically wishy-washy of him.

Gov. Greg Abbott is adopting a wait-and-see approach about anticipated legislation that would prohibit transgender people in Texas from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

“I have not seen any proposed legislation yet,” a characteristically cautious Abbott told reporters Tuesday at the Capitol. He added that there are still a number of things unknown that could determine the need for such a bill.

Among those variables, Abbott said, is the legal challenge to President Barack Obama’s guidelines directing public schools to accommodate transgender students. The incoming administration of GOP President-elect Donald Trump could bring an end to that dispute, which was an impetus for the push for a so-called “bathroom bill” in Texas.

While such legislation has not been released yet in Texas, business leaders have already lined up to voice their opposition, worried it could scare off investment in the same way a similar proposal did in North Carolina. Asked about those concerns, Abbott said his goal heading into this session is “ensuring the safety and security of the people of Texas.”

“We are in the information-gathering stage right now,” Abbott told reporters when pressed on his views about a potential bathroom bill.

Whatever. This is basically of a piece with the Buckingham statement that may or may not have represented a tentative stepping back from the original intent of the Patrick potty bill, but let’s be clear that the impetus for this was not school bathrooms but the HERO fight and the recognition that whipping up a frenzy against the transgender community struck a chord with GOP base voters. It’s only now that the business community has kicked up a fuss, much to Patrick’s disgust, that some Republicans are maybe, possibly, could be dialing it back just a bit. I remain dubious, but there does appear to a change in rhetoric, and it is worth noting. But let’s not lose sight of what this was always all about, and what Dan Patrick and his fellow travelers still want it to be all about. They may settle for something smaller this session if they feel they have to, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be satisfied if it happens.

By the way, the embedded image comes from this Gray Matters post by Cort McMurray, in which he demonstrates his facility for inventing potty-based nicknames for Dan Patrick. You should definitely read it.

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.

Two more lawsuit updates

The ban on the transgender bathroom rule remains in place pending appeals.

RedEquality

Continued lack of access in public schools to bathrooms matching transgender persons’ gender identity won’t cause them irreparable harm, a Texas federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Reed O’Connor of Wichita Falls, Texas, made that finding Sunday in ruling against two federal executive branch departments.

O’Connor concluded the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education had failed to show they will suffer irreparable injury if he allows to continue his nationwide ban on their policy for allowing transgender people in public schools access to the bathrooms assigned to the gender with which they self-identify.

The federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “sex”—the scope and meaning of which the federal government agencies claim now includes gender identity—were promulgated nearly 40 years ago, O’Connor wrote.

He referred specifically to the time gap between the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and May this year when the federal agencies announced their new transgender bathroom guidelines for public schools. “[T]he Court views this delay as strong evidence that Defendants will suffer no irreparable injury if a stay is denied and enforcement of the [federal agencies’] guidelines delayed until their legality is established,” O’Connor wrote.

See here for the background. I’m sure no one suffered any injury at all during the time between the passage of Title IX and the much more recent recognition of transgender people as actual human beings.

The litigation over the Obama Administration executive order on immigration will be on hold until next year.

The first major litigation effect of the election of Donald Trump took place in a Texas federal district court Friday when the lawyers in the case against the Obama administration’s plan to delay deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants asked the judge to postpone proceedings until Feb. 20.

“Given the change in administration, the parties jointly submit that a brief stay of any further litigation … would serve judicial efficiency and economy so that the parties have a better understanding of how they might choose to move forward,” U.S. Justice Department lawyers wrote in the filing.

[…]

The injunction will remain in place if the judge grants the motion to stay the proceedings. President-elect Trump would have the option of ending the litigation after his inauguration by withdrawing the guidance that authorized the deportation delays.

SCOTUS had declined to intervene in the appeal of the original ruling that halted this order nationwide, so here we are. Both of these cases involve non-legislative action – an executive order in this case, and an updated administrative guideline from the Department of Education in the other – and so in some sense the litigation doesn’t matter, since both of those actions can and almost certainly will be reversed by the next President. I would imagine that once that happens, the Attorneys General who filed these suits will withdraw them. Such will be life for the next four years.

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.

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 to appeal transgender bathroom directive

Good.

RedEquality

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) plans to appeal a Texas judge’s injunctionbarring the Obama administration from implementing guidelines aimed at protecting transgender students against discrimination.

DOJ attorneys announced in court documents Friday that they’ll file formal notice that they’re appealing the injunction to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on or before October 20.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor issued the nationwide preliminary injunction in August, in response to a request from the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which is challenging the guidelines on behalf of more than a dozen states.

“DOJ has a number of strong procedural arguments,” said Ken Upton, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal. “It will be interesting to see what the 5th Circuit does.”

[…]

Upton said it could be March or April before the 5th Circuit rules on whether to overturn the injunction. But as soon as the notice of appeal has been filed, the DOJ can request that the injunction be placed on hold while the 5th Circuit considers the case — a request that could be granted within weeks. If the DOJ obtains a stay of the injunction, the Obama administration could resume implementing the guidance.

A request for a stay of the injunction would first have to go to O’Connor, who would be likely to deny it, Upton said. But the DOJ could then request a stay from the 5th Circuit and, if necessary, the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Given the way the injunction binds the government agencies and DOJ, I think there is a good chance they might get a stay,” Upton said.

After O’Connor issued the injunction, DOJ attorneys filed a motion requesting that he clarify its scope. O’Connor heard arguments on the motion September 30 but has not yet ruled. The DOJ had requested that O’Connor do so by October 3.

Upton said he believes Friday’s filing — in which the DOJ announced it plans to file a notice of appeal this week — was intended “to nudge the judge to rule on the clarification motion before their appeal time runs out on October 20.”

“I think you could call it a friendly reminder that if he doesn’t rule by Thursday he’s going to lose jurisdiction of the case and it’s going to the 5th Circuit as is,” Upton said.

See here for the background. On Thursday, they followed through.

Federal officials say they will ask the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn an injunction issued by Fort Worth-based U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor. On Tuesday, O’Connor reaffirmed that his ruling blocking the guidelines applied nationwide, not just in the 13 states that filed suit against the federal government.

O’Connor issued the original ruling in August on the same day millions of Texas children headed back to school, preventing the federal government from enforcing the guidelines as the case went through the courts.

In a 38-page order, O’Connor sided with Texas and 12 other states challenging the federal directive, saying the “status quo” should remain in place nationwide until the court rules on the case, or a federal appeals court provides further guidance, because the administration had not followed proper rule-making procedure in crafting the guidelines.

O’Connor did not, however, rule on the merits of the case, noting “the resolution of this difficult policy decision is not … the subject of this order.”

See here for more on the affirmation that the ruling was intended to be nationwide. It’s always dicey having to put one’s faith in the Fifth Circuit doing the right thing, but this is where we are, and the stakes are high. I suppose even if the Fifth Circuit fails to stop the madness, another lawsuit in a different circuit might generate a conflicting opinion, which would force SCOTUS to get involved sooner than I’m sure it wants to. Trail Blazers and Daily Kos have 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.

Some officials take note of special education funding restrictions

It’s a start.

The vice chairman of the State Board of Education, a Houston school board member, a key state senator and scores of parents and disability advocates all expressed strong opposition on Monday to a Texas Education Agency performance-based monitoring system that has kept thousands of disabled children out of special education since 2004.

[…]

Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican who is the second-highest-ranking member of the State Board of Education, expressed dismay at TEA’s 8.5 percent special education target.

“It looks awfully arbitrary and in no way mirrors reality,” he said. “The concentric circles of damage that this has done I think is immeasurable at this point.”

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, the vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, called the issue an “utmost priority.”

“We have a constitutional duty and a moral obligation to provide all Texas children with the services that are required to ensure that every student can thrive academically,” said Lucio, D-Brownsville, echoing statements made by several of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature. “By urging schools to limit the number of students they enroll in special education services, our state is turning its back on students that need our help the most.”

[…]

Gene Acuña, a spokesman for the Texas Education Agency, declined further comment. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus also declined comment.

Previously, former Gov. Rick Perry, during whose administration the 8.5 percent enrollment target was first put in place, declined to discuss the monitoring system.

In Washington, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman confirmed that her office was ready to take action, if needed, to ensure that children with disabilities get services.

“We are looking into it,” she said.

See here for the background. The headline on the story is “Officials vow to end limits put on special ed”, but let’s be honest. Until at least two of Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and Joe Straus make that vow, nothing is going to happen. Those three, as well as Rick “Dancing Terribly With The Stars” Perry, should not be allowed to “no comment” their way out of this for more than a few days, too. I greatly admire what the Chron has done with this story, but they need to call those three’s offices every day until they have some answers. The other news outlets in this state are more than welcome to get in on that action as well. In the meantime, I hope there’s more to report on, and I definitely hope to hear of some followup from the US Department of Education soon.

“Denied”

This is worth your time to read.

During the first week of school at Shadow Forest Elementary, a frail kindergartner named Roanin Walker had a meltdown at recess. Overwhelmed by the shrieking and giggling, he hid by the swings and then tried to escape the playground, hitting a classmate and biting a teacher before being restrained.

The principal called Roanin’s mother.

“There’s been an incident.”

Heidi Walker was frightened, but as she hurried to the Humble school that day in 2014, she felt strangely relieved.

She had warned school administrators months earlier that her 5-year-old had been diagnosed with a disability similar to autism. Now they would understand, she thought. Surely they would give him the therapy and counseling he needed.

Walker knew the law was on her side. Since 1975, Congress has required public schools in the United States to provide specialized education services to all eligible children with any type of disability.

But what she didn’t know is that in Texas, unelected state officials have quietly devised a system that has kept thousands of disabled kids like Roanin out of special education.

Over a decade ago, the officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services — 8.5 percent — and since then they have forced school districts to comply by strictly auditing those serving too many kids.

Their efforts, which started in 2004 but have never been publicly announced or explained, have saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars but denied vital supports to children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, even blindness and deafness, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found.

More than a dozen teachers and administrators from across the state told the Chronicle they have delayed or denied special education to disabled students in order to stay below the 8.5 percent benchmark. They revealed a variety of methods, from putting kids into a cheaper alternative program known as “Section 504” to persuading parents to pull their children out of public school altogether.

“We were basically told in a staff meeting that we needed to lower the number of kids in special ed at all costs,” said Jamie Womack Williams, who taught in the Tyler Independent School District until 2010. “It was all a numbers game.”

Texas is the only state that has ever set a target for special education enrollment, records show.

It has been remarkably effective.

In the years since its implementation, the rate of Texas kids receiving special education has plummeted from near the national average of 13 percent to the lowest in the country — by far.

In 2015, for the first time, it fell to exactly 8.5 percent.

If Texas provided services at the same rate as the rest of the U.S., 250,000 more kids would be getting critical services such as therapy, counseling and one-on-one tutoring.

“It’s extremely disturbing,” said longtime education advocate Jonathan Kozol, who described the policy as a cap on special education meant to save money.

“It’s completely incompatible with federal law,” Kozol said. “It looks as if they’re actually punishing districts that meet the needs of kids.”

Heidi Walker hoped that Humble school officials would help her son Roanin adapt and cope when he entered kindergarten.

In a statement, Texas Education Agency officials denied they had kept disabled students out of special education and said their guideline calling for enrollments of 8.5 percent was not a cap or a target but an “indicator” of performance by school districts. They said state-by-state comparisons were inappropriate and attributed the state’s dramatic declines in special educations enrollments to new teaching techniques that have lowered the number of children with “learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia.

In fact, despite the number of children affected, no one has studied Texas’ 32 percent drop in special education enrollment.

The Chronicle investigation included a survey of all 50 states, a review of records obtained from the federal government, state governments and three dozen school districts, and interviews with more than 300 experts, educators and parents.

The investigation found that the Texas Education Agency’s 8.5 percent enrollment target has led to the systematic denial of services by school districts to tens of thousands of families of every race and class across the state.

Among the findings:

• The benchmark has limited access to special education for children with virtually every type of disability. Texas schools now serve fewer kids with learning disabilities (46 percent lower than in 2004), emotional and mental illnesses (42 percent), orthopedic impairments (39 percent), speech impediments (27 percent), brain injuries (20 percent), hearing defects (15 percent) and visual problems (8 percent).

• Special education rates have fallen to the lowest levels in big cities, where the needs are greatest. Houston ISD and Dallas ISD provide special ed services to just 7.4 percent and 6.9 percent of students, respectively. By comparison, about 19 percent of kids in New York City get services. In all, among the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., only 10 serve fewer than 8.5 percent of their students. All 10 are in Texas.

• Students who don’t speak English at home have been hurt the most. Those children currently make up 17.9 percent of all students in Texas but only 15.4 percent of those in special education. That 15 percent difference is triple the gap that existed when the monitoring system began.

See here for the unebeddable charts that accompany the story, and be sure to read the whole thing, as it is well-reported and deeply infuriating. I had no idea any of this had been happening, and that’s despite knowing a couple of families who were directly affected by it. Now that this is out in the light, the next step is to try to pin down some elected officials and get them on the record about it. What do Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick think about this, and more importantly what if anything do they think needs to be done about it? Perhaps Rick Perry could spare a few minutes from his cha-cha practice to answer how his happened on his watch. Regardless of what answers we get, I hope the federal government opens a big ol’ probe of this practice, and comes down like a ton of bricks as needed. I don’t know what else the Chron has in store on this issue, but whatever it is, I look forward to it. Well done.

Paxton’s dinner with the Briggle family

So he did go, and he managed to behave himself.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Lots of preparation led up to the moment, but Amber and Adam Briggle still exchanged nervous looks when their doorbell rang about 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

“I was terrified,” Amber Briggle said.

They had invited Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his wife, Angela, to come over for dinner and spend a little time with them and their transgender son. The Briggles occupy a much different political space than Paxton, a conservative Republican who has opposed expanding civil rights for gay and transgender people.

A lot of the usual insecurities went through Amber Briggle’s mind — worrying about the food she prepared, whether she would spill her drink, what they would all talk about over dinner.

She needn’t have worried.

“Honestly, it was a very pleasant evening,” Amber Briggle said.

[…]

The Briggles called their invitation to Paxton an act of diplomacy. He has opposed gay marriage, and he is against the idea that transgender people be allowed to use a public restroom that corresponds to their gender identity.

The Briggles see the state’s latest political battle with the federal government over transgender civil rights as one that directly affects their child.

“I’m concerned that the lawsuit, and all these injunctions, and the legislation that’s coming our way is putting my son in danger,” Amber Briggle said.

Many families of transgender children don’t draw attention to themselves out of self-preservation. But that also feeds ignorance, the Briggles say.

They weren’t sure whether the Paxtons had ever knowingly met a transgender person before. The Briggles wanted to show that they are an ordinary Texas family and that they really aren’t alone.

[…]

The couple didn’t ask Paxton for anything specific in relation to the politics surrounding LGBT rights in Texas. Instead, they asked the attorney general to remember them and their son when considering future actions.

See here for the background. The Briggles are better people than I would be in this situation. I wish I could say that I believe Paxton will become a better, more empathetic person as a result of the Briggles’ hospitality, but alas, I can’t. I expect he won’t say, do, or feel anything different. Worth the effort, but this audience wasn’t ready to hear the message.

Paxton encourages schools to discriminate against transgender students

From the ACLU of Texas:

[Friday], the ACLU of Texas issued a letter to Texas school districts outlining their ongoing legal responsibility to provide transgender students access to educational opportunities and school facilities on the same basis as all other students. Yesterday, the State of Texas issued its own “guidance” letter to Texas schools regarding thefederal government’s May 13 guidance.

The following may be attributed to Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas:

“We value Texas educators, whose top priority is the academic success of their students and we think those educators deserve better legal advice than they got from Attorney General Ken Paxton. To be clear, public schools are not party to the lawsuit filed by the State of Texas in federal court in Wichita Falls and they aren’t subject to the preliminary injunction that prevents the Obama administration from acting on its Guidance regarding Title IX. School districts in Texas that already have inclusive policies to protect their transgender students are free to enforce them. School districts considering such policies are free to adopt them. School districts that do not have appropriate policies under Title IX risk being sued by transgender students who experience discrimination.”

A copy of the ACLU of Texas letter on Transgender Student Guidance is available here.

Here’s a Chron story about this. Remember how Paxton has said he was willing to meet with a transgender child’s family, to, I don’t know, tell the kid that it’s nothing personal, he just wants to make sure no one is forced to treat that kid like a fellow human being? I still don’t believe he will really do this, but if he does, I hope it’s the most awkward and uncomfortable experience he ever has.

Preliminary injunction granted in transgender bathroom directive case

Ugh.

RedEquality

A federal judge in Fort Worth has blocked Obama administration guidelines directing the nation’s public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and other facilities that align with their gender identity.

In a 38-page order released Sunday, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor said the “status quo” should remain in place nationwide until the court rules on the case, or a federal appeals court provides further guidance.

[…]

“This case presents the difficult issue of balancing the protection of students’ rights and that of personal privacy while using school bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, and other intimate facilities, while ensuring that no student is unnecessarily marginalized while attending school,” O’Connor wrote in the order. He added: “The sensitivity to this matter is heightened because Defendant’s actions apply to the youngest child attending school and continues every year throughout each child’s educational career.”

“The resolution of this difficult policy decision is not, however, the subject of this order,” he said.

You can see a copy of the court order here. We had expected a ruling before school started, though I honestly didn’t think that would mean Sunday. The question now is what does this mean, since there wasn’t a law in place, just a recommendation. ThinkProgress offers one explanation:

The scope of O’Connor’s order is vast. It dictates that the federal government can not intervene on behalf of trans students in any school nationwide. If the departments were already investigating claims of anti-trans discrimination, they must suspend those investigations immediately. In other words, so long as this injunction is in place, it’s as if the guidance protecting trans students doesn’t exist at all. It doesn’t, however, prevent schools from continuing to follow the guidance.

The ACLU, which was one of the filers of a joint amicus brief in the case, had the following to say:

“A ruling by a single judge in one circuit cannot and does not undo the years of clear legal precedent nationwide establishing that transgender students have the right to go to school without being singled out for discrimination. This unfortunate and premature ruling may, however, confuse school districts that are simply trying to support their students, including their transgender students. So let us make it clear to those districts: your obligations under the law have not changed, and you are still not only allowed but required to treat transgender students fairly. The scope of this injunction has no effect on the ability of other courts or lawyers representing transgender people to continue to rely on the federal government’s interpretations of Title IX or on prior decisions that have reached similar conclusions about the scope of federal sex discrimination laws.

“The court’s misguided decision targets a small, vulnerable group of young people – transgender elementary and high school students – for potential continued harassment, stigma and abuse.”

Although the court failed to consider the interests of the very students the federal laws were intended to protect, the five civil rights organizations who advocated on their behalf avowed, “We will continue to file lawsuits representing transgender students and litigate them to the fullest extent of the law—regardless of what happens with this particular federal guidance.”

The one thing that is clear is that this will be appealed. One should never get one’s hopes up where the Fifth Circuit is concerned, but this is what we’ve got for now. The DMN, the Austin Chronicle, the Current, and the Press have more.

No ruling yet in potty lawsuit

We should get one soon, at least as far as the request for an injunction goes.

RedEquality

U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor did not issue a ruling from the bench after an almost two-hour long hearing during which state attorneys — as part of a Texas-led, 13-state effort to block the guidelines — argued they unconstitutionally “hold a gun to the head” of states and school districts.

In the first hearing over the state’s lawsuit against the federal government, Austin Nimocks, associate deputy for special litigation in the Texas Attorney General’s office, told O’Connor that the federal government “usurped” the authority of states and schools by requiring that “sexes must be mixed” in “intimate areas” like bathrooms.

[…]

But Texas jumped the gun in filing the lawsuit because the federal government has not moved forward with any enforcement action against a school, said Benjamin Berwick, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. Because of that, Berwick argued, Texas and the dozen other states that joined the lawsuit have no legal standing.

“Even if the guidance documents didn’t exist, the [federal government] could still bring enforcement based on understanding of the law as it pertains to transgender individuals,” Berwick argued. The difference is that entities would not have the “benefits” of knowing how the feds are interpreting the nondiscrimination protections.

During the hearing, Nimocks regularly described the guidelines as coercive because schools were required to change their policies or risk losing federal funds over unconstitutional rules that were “legislative in nature” but passed without congressional approval.

“They cannot simply say they are clarifying” existing law, Nimocks said, adding that the new rules were not consistent with the use of the sex category by Congress in the federal statutes, where it has been kept separate from gender identity.

See here and here for some background, and here for a story from before the hearing. As my children know all too well, school starts in nine days, so expect a ruling this week. Judge O’Connor is being asked to impose a nationwide halt on the directive, which is kind of a big deal especially with more than half of the states not being involved in the litigation. I suppose a more limited injunction is a possibility, but we’ll see.

More states file potty lawsuits

Oh, goodie.

Best mugshot ever

Why would anyone follow this guy?

Ten additional states are suing the Obama administration to stop a directive that requires schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms aligned with their gender identity under the threat of losing federal funding, bringing the total number of states challenging the guidance to 21.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson announced the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Nebraska, on Friday afternoon. The state is joined by nine others: Arkansas, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming.

[…]

Friday’s lawsuit is part of a recent spate of litigation about the issue. There are now legal challenges to the Obama administration’s directive pending in at least four federal appellate circuits, setting up the possibility that courts could diverge on the issue and lead the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

Stanford law professor Jeffrey Fisher, co-director of the school’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, said the court is more likely to take up an issue if federal appellate courts come to different legal conclusions. But he said the high court often waits until lawsuits have the chance to percolate through the legal system so it has the benefit of the input from other jurisdictions.

“The fact that a particular issue is being litigated in several states across the country weighs in favor” of the Supreme Court stepping in, Fisher said.

The Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Va., is the highest court to issue a ruling on the matter. In April, the court sided with a transgender student suing a Virginia school board for banning him from the boys’ bathroom, saying his lawsuit challenging that policy could move forward in a lower court. In its ruling, the appeals court deferred to the Obama administration’s position that Title IX protects the rights of transgender students to use bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity.

See here and here for the background. Before we get as far as appellate courts possibly issuing conflicting opinions, Ken Paxton is trying to get a nationwide injunction halting the directive before school starts in Texas on August 22. This is going to be the never-ending Summer of Potties, whether we like it or not.

Paxton petitions for national injunction against transgender bathroom directive

This guy, I swear.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Plunging further into the politics of public school bathrooms, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday expanded his federal lawsuit against an Obama Administration directive instructing schools not to discriminate against transgender students, saying he wants a nationwide injunction stopping the policy and wants it quickly.

Because a federal judge’s decision to halt President Obama’s executive action on immigration was applied nationwide, Paxton suggested that a different federal judge in Wichita Falls has the authority to issue a similar order regarding the transgender policy.

The updated request for preliminary injunction against the new rules is the latest in Texas’ fight against the federal government over the transgender-inclusive policy. Zeroing in on a requirement to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, Texas, joined by 10 other states, filed a federal lawsuit in March to stop Obama’s directive.

In the filing, Paxton’s office wrote a nationwide injunction is necessary because the new rules apply to all public school districts and not just those suing the federal government. The other states in the lawsuit are Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

See here for the background. Yes, they said “plunging” in a story that has to do with bathrooms. That’s about as much respect as this desperate gesture deserves. Unfortunately, there’s a real chance the judge could go along with this. We’ll keep an eye on it and hope for the best. Equality Texas, the Chron, and the Press have more.

UPDATE: From the Statesman:

According to Paxton’s motion to U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Wichita Falls, the federal government has agreed to an expedited court schedule in an attempt to resolve the injunction request before the fall semester begins Aug. 22 for most Texas districts.

The schedule calls for all briefs to be submitted by Aug. 3 and requests that a hearing, if needed, be held Aug. 8 or 9.

Mark your calendars accordingly.

Ken Paxton does not approve of transgender bathroom policies

Big surprise, right?

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday issued an opinion saying the Fort Worth school superintendent who made headlines for formulating guidelines to accommodate transgender students exceeded his authority. Paxton also said that a portion of the guidelines instructing district employees not to out transgender students to their parents might violate state law.

Citing a part of the Texas education code, Paxton wrote that school district boards of trustees — not superintendents — are required to adopt policies while superintendents can only implement those policies “by developing administrative regulations.”

Attorney general opinions are not legally binding, and Paxton’s interpretation has no direct legal impact on the Fort Worth district.

[…]

The district has indicated that the board of trustees was not asked to vote on the policy because it is an “administrative guideline” — a policy that superintendents can implement without official board approval — that stemmed from a non-discrimination policy updated in 2011.

To ensure privacy of students, particularly in cases when the student has not disclosed gender identity status to a parent or guardian, Fort Worth ISD’s guidelines include a protection of privacy for transgender students, directing school personnel to only share information about the student’s gender identity and expression on a “need-to-know basis or as the student directs.”

In his opinion, Paxton indicated that portion of the guidelines violates state law to the extent that they “limit parental access to information about their child and operate to encourage students to withhold information from parents.” Policies dealing with “parental involvement with students’ gender identity choices” must be “addressed” by the school board before they are implemented, he said. He added that the guidelines “relegate parents to a subordinate status.”

In response to Paxton’s opinion, a spokesman for Fort Worth ISD said the district’s legal counsel was reviewing the opinion. “She will advise the superintendent as appropriate,” he added.

Scribner has stood by the guidelines and confirmed he will stay in his post. School board trustees have reiterated that they were in the loop on the policy change, with at least two saying they were surprised the issue had escalated.

Paxton was asked for this opinion by Dan Patrick, whose obsession with bathrooms is well established. I didn’t have a chance to read this opinion – which as we all know does not carry the force of law – when it first came out, but then thankfully John Wright spared me the need.

But nowhere in his nonbinding opinion does Paxton address the question of restroom use, and a closer review of the document reveals Patrick’s “victory” to be mostly hollow.

In the opinion, Paxton wrote that the guidelines violate state law by limiting when school officials can disclose a student’s gender identity to parents. However, FWISD representatives have already stated — in a brief to Paxton’s office cited in a footnote of the opinion — that they plan to revise the parental notification provisions to bring them into line with the Education Code.

David Mack Henderson, president of LGBT advocacy group Fairness Fort Worth, said Tuesday he expects those changes “will render General Paxton’s unenforceable opinion moot.”

Even before Patrick and other Republican lawmakers stormed into Fort Worth in April to call for Scribner’s resignation over the guidelines, school board Trustee Matthew Avila told the Observer that officials were likely to tweak the parental notification provisions, which LGBT advocates agree are on shaky legal ground.

“Generally, parents have a right to access their children’s information and control their upbringing,” Lambda Legal senior counsel Ken Upton said.

FWISD’s brief to Paxton’s office lists exceptions to this rule, including for child abuse investigations, and notes that a 2002 AG’s opinion determined there are “very narrow and unusual circumstances” in which student information can be withheld from parents. FWISD’s brief states that “absent such circumstances, District personnel involve parents in all student matters, including gender identity issues.”

With regard to a second question posed by Patrick, Paxton found that Scribner violated the Education Code by implementing the Transgender Guidelines without a vote from the school board — but only in the context of the parental notification provisions, which account for roughly four paragraphs of the eight-page document.

“While a superintendent is authorized to recommend policies to be adopted by the board, chapter 11 requires that policy decisions, like those addressing parental involvement with students’ gender identity choices, be addressed by the board of trustees prior to the development of any related administrative regulations,” Paxton wrote.

FWISD officials have said Scribner acted within his authority to implement the guidelines because they are an extension of the district’s 2012 nondiscrimination policy, which includes gender identity. The Education Code gives superintendents the authority to “ensure the implementation of the policies created by the board.”

So there’s less to this than meets the eye. Mostly, it’s an invitation for someone who has a kid in FWISD to file a lawsuit, much as Paxton has filed a lawsuit against the feds over their advisory on bathroom access. I firmly believe that in the end forces of darkness and cowardice like Paxton and Patrick will lose, but it will not be quick or easy getting there. There will be setbacks, and people will be hurt along the way. The only message these guys will ever comprehend is at the ballot box. Trail Blazers, Texas Monthly, and the Current have more.

Anyone want to help me sue the feds?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Wednesday that he had filed a lawsuit challenging federal guidelines for transgender students, he said it was to protect a Texas school district that had adopted a policy requiring students to use bathrooms according to the gender cited on their birth certificates.

He didn’t say his office asked the district to pass the policy.

Nor did he say what The Texas Tribune has now learned: that his staff had approached another North Texas school district about pursuing the policy — and the lawsuit — 10 days earlier.

On May 16, two top Paxton aides attended a Wichita Falls school board meeting. The board was considering an agenda item regarding gender-specific restrooms and requesting legal representation from the attorney general’s office.

In a video recording of the meeting, Trey Sralla, the Wichita Falls school board president, introduces Paxton senior adviser Ben Williams and Assistant Attorney General Andrew Leonie, explaining that they are there to answer questions about the proposed policy.

“This has come down from the attorney general’s office, who have asked us to look at a policy here and [said] that they would be willing to on our behalf go and take this to the court system,” Sralla said at the meeting, which came three days after the federal government released guidelines instructing school districts to let transgender students use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Leonie then fielded several questions from board members, including whether getting involved in legal action would mean the district would lose federal funding.

“I wish I had brought my crystal ball with me but I left that in Austin,” Leonie said. “We are here to reassure you that if you should adopt a policy like is under consideration, we will do what we can to back you and to protect you from the federal government, whether that means being proactive in filing a suit or whether it is responding to a suit, I don’t know.”

After about an hour of discussion, board members ultimately decided against adopting the policy, concluding that the district already had appropriate practices in place to address the needs of transgender students.

“I feel like in this situation we’ve been put between a rock and a hard place by both the federal and our state government where we are the ones who would be the sacrificial lambs effectively in this fight,” said board member Elizabeth Yeager. “I think that would be completely a waste of time and a distraction from our school business of educating students.”

Wichita Falls Superintendent Michael Kurht also came out against adopting the policy, citing legal counsel that the school district’s current policies were in compliance with the new federal guidelines.

“I don’t know that my time and the district’s time is best suited to do this,” he said.

[…]

Asked to clarify how many school districts the attorney general’s office approached about adopting the transgender policy, Paxton spokesman Marc Rylander did not provide a specific number.

I’m sure. There were many questions raised when this lawsuit was first announced, but the question of how many times the AG’s office had to ask and got a No answer is one that ought to be pursued. The fact that they didn’t immediately say “no one else, just Wichita Falls ISD” suggests to me that there was at least one other school district besides them. Let’s find out who they were. There was also a question about whether they looked anywhere other than the Wichita Falls area. Given that Pearland already has the policy in place that Paxton was seeking Wichita Falls ISD to adopt, one wonders why they needed them or Harrold ISD or whoever else they might have pursued. Well, OK, we do know the reason, we just don’t know how vigorously Paxton pursued it before finding his mark. Like I said, that would be nice to find out.

Paxton sues over Obama directive on transgender bathroom access

A more transparent publicity stunt you would be hard-pressed to find.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Texas, joined by 10 other states, filed a lawsuit Wednesday to stop a federal directive instructing school districts to let transgender students use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Wednesday.

Calling the Obama administration guidelines “outside the bounds of the constitution,” the McKinney Republican said that the state was taking action to protect a school district near the Oklahoma border that had passed a policy earlier this week requiring students to use bathrooms according to the gender cited on their birth certificates.

“Harrold Independent School District fulfilled a responsibility to their community and adopted a bathroom policy puts the safety of their students first,” said Paxton. “Unfortunately the policy placed them at odds with federal directives handed down earlier this month. That means the district is in the crosshairs of Obama administration which has maintained it will punish anyone who doesn’t comply with their orders.”

The other states in the lawsuit are Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Paxton said they had joined because the issue was of national importance.

“It represents just the latest example of the current administration’s attempt to accomplish by executive fiat what they couldn’t accomplish democratically in Congress,” he said.

The Obama administration guidelines stated transgender students have the right to use their preferred bathrooms in public schools because of Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at education institutions that receive federal funding. It does not have the force of law, though school districts could risk losing federal money if they do not comply.

Harrold superintendent David Thweatt, who joined Paxton at the Austin news conference, said his school board had passed the policy out of concern for the “safety, security, and dignity of the children.” None of the 100 students currently enrolled there identify as transgender, he said.

Concerns about the safety of allowing transgender people to access the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identities draw deep skepticism from LGBT advocates. With virtually no evidence of attacks coming from such policies in any states, they say, efforts like those ramping up in Texas instead serve to further stigmatize transgender people and perpetuate violence against them.

When asked Wednesday, neither Paxton nor Thweatt could point to instances where allowing transgender students access to the bathrooms that correspond to their gender identities had threatened anyone’s safety.

We all know why that’s true, right? Paxton had previously sent a letter to the feds asking for some “clarifications” on the directive, which was clearly some laying of groundwork for the lawsuit. It’s not the first time Paxton has expressed a deep interest in people’s potty usage, nor is he the first Republican to do so. To get some idea of how ridiculous this all is, Andrea Grimes digs in a bit:

Harrold ISD passed its policy, which according to Paxton makes “accommodations for special circumstances on a case-by-case basis,” on Monday. That’s two days ago. The Obama administration issued its guidelines nearly two weeks ago.

Apparently one of President Obama’s many skills is oppressing people from the past, using time travel. What a mighty coincidence that, on May 23, Harrold ISD, which says it has no transgender students, decided to pass a papers-please bathroom policy that affects none of its students. And then on May 25, Harrold just happened to become the lead plaintiff in an 11-state federal lawsuit against the federal government, arguing that guidelines Obama issued before Harrold even had a bathroom policy violate Harrold’s right to have whatever non-existent policy it wanted, two weeks before.

When I pressed the Harrold ISD superintendent on the curious timing of the policy’s passage, he responded: “We passed the policy because we believe in it. We think it’s necessary to protect the security and safety and dignity of children.”

Well, speaking of security and safety — from what, exactly? At Wednesday’s presser, reporters put pressure on Paxton to cite any examples of transgender people of any age doing harm to others in public facilities. Because it would be impossible, even for a great legal mind like Paxton’s, to present evidence for something that doesn’t actually happen, the AG spun questions back to familiar territory: defending the Constitution, bad Barack Obama, the evil fed, etc.

She documents the more recent previous cases of potty panic from the state GOP, which shows no sign of letting up. Think Progress adds on:

The entire lawsuit is based on a false premise. As Paxton explained at the beginning of Wednesday’s press conference, the federal government’s directives “open all school bathrooms to people of both sexes.” The lawsuit similarly suggests that the guidance requires that “persons of both sexes have a right to use previously separate sex intimate facilities.”

Drawing this conclusion requires both a deliberate misreading of the guidance and a rejection of who transgender people are. The letter issued earlier this month by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (DOE) specifically affirms that “Title IX’s implementing regulations permit a school to provide sex-segregated restrooms, locker rooms, shower facilities, housing, and athletic teams, as well as single-sex classes under certain circumstances.” It simply adds that when doing so, schools must allow transgender students to participate in accordance with their gender identity.

The Texas lawsuit doesn’t even use the word “transgender” except when quoting from other documents, and it uses scare quotes to mock the concept of “gender identity” throughout. After describing the guidance as a “massive social experiment” that runs “roughshod over commonsense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights,” it proceeds to layout an unrecognizable understanding of gender identity.

The suit also claims that the guidance requires “seismic changes” to how the schools operate, because they must allow students to “choose the restrooms, locker rooms, and other intimate facilities that match their chosen ‘gender identity’ on any given day.”

The notion that a gender identity can be chosen or that it can flipflop by the hour ignores the definition provided by the DOJ and DOE — that it is “an individual’s internal sense of gender.” The guidance also repeatedly refers to providing treatment that is “consistent” with students’ gender identity, something that could not be done but for the assumption that their identity is, in fact, consistent.

[…]

The lead counsel on the case is Austin Nimocks. Before working for Paxton, Nimocks was senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), where he helped them repeatedly lose caseschallenging marriage equality. ADF is behind multiple other lawsuits challenging the transgender guidance and has also persuaded schools to pass anti-trans policies like Harrold’s by promising to provide free counsel.

Despite the losing record Nimocks brings to the case, he may prevail at the district court level. The only judge on the bench in the federal district court in Wichita Falls, where Harrold ISD is located and where the suit was filed, is Judge Reed O’Connor. In 2014 and early 2015, when federal judges were ruling in favor of same-sex marriage across the country, O’Connor was one of the only judges — and indeed, one of the last judges anywhere — who ruled against it.

So there may be a step or two backwards before we can move forward. Though who knows, maybe it will be harder than even Ken Paxton thinks to get a judge to buy his mishmash of baloney and fact-free fearmongering. I look at it this way: The reason why the courts began ruling against same-sex marriage bans is that the argument against same-sex marriage ultimately boiled down to discredited studies claiming that children raised by same-sax couples did worse than other children, and a general animus towards the whole idea. The former couldn’t stand courtroom scrutiny, and the latter was ruled to be an insufficient cause for a law that targeted a class of people. This is a different kind of case here, since it’s the plaintiffs who are seeking restrictions, but I think this basic principle will eventually play out in the courts. There’s no justification for the anti-trans laws, and I am confident that the courts will, by and large, rule that way. It may yet take awhile, and Ken Paxton may get the legal victory to go with the political bonanza that he hopes to reap, but in the end I believe justice will prevail. The Chron, the Current, Trail Blazers, the AusChron, and the Press has more.

Paxton asks the feds if they’re sure about that bathroom thing

Just checking, I’m sure.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Will public schools really lose federal education funding if they refuse to comply with a new Obama administration directive regarding transgender students?

That’s the basic query posed by top lawyers from Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia in a letter sent Tuesday to the U.S. Justice and Education departments seeking clarification on the directive, which advises the nation’s public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.

The guidance, issued Friday by those agencies, came days after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for the resignation of the Fort Worth ISD superintendent for implementing similar rules designed to help educators abide by an updated nondiscrimination policy.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has already threatened legal action over the directive, which does not have the force of law but seeks to clarify how federal agencies may interpret relevant statutes and an entity’s compliance.

In Tuesday’s letter, Paxton and the two other state attorneys general ask whether entities receiving federal funding must “follow this ‘significant guidance’ in order to be in compliance with Title IX” — the federal law governing gender equity in education — “and/or entitled to continued receipt of federal funding?”

“Do circumstances exist in which you would consider a school still in compliance with Title IX despite non-compliance with these guidelines?” the letter asks. “If so, please describe those circumstances and whether you would take steps to recoup or end federal funding.”

Texas receives more than $5 billion per year in federal education funding, which it uses for free-and-reduced lunch and other programs designed to help needy children.

Last week, Patrick said he was willing to forgo that money and urged Texas superintendents to resist pressure from the federal government to follow the directive.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can’t imagine Paxton will get the answer he wants to hear, so I assume this is just laying groundwork for the threatened litigation. The Chron and Daily Kos have more.

TEA Commissioner has no opinion yet on federal transgender bathroom directive

Noted for the record.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday praised the state Supreme Court’s recent opinion upholding the state’s public school funding system and demurred on questions about bathroom use by transgender students.

“Last time I checked, it was a free country,” Morath said in a wide-ranging interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith when asked whether Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s efforts to overturn a policy in Forth Worth allowing transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity clashed with Morath’s belief in the importance of local control.

The issue erupted last week when the Obama administration ordered every public school in the nation to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity rather than their biological sex.

[…]

But the Texas Education Agency is still reviewing the federal directive, Morath said Tuesday, contending that it was too soon for him to weigh in on the issue.

“Until we have a clear sense of our options, it’s just not appropriate for me to comment,” he said.

Not very illuminating. I’ll take him at his word about not having fully reviewed the federal directive, but that’s a temporary excuse. To be fair, if Dan Patrick shoves a potty package check bill down everyone’s throat, then Mike Morath’s opinion of the federal missive matters not at all. Still, it would be nice to know just what kind of person Mike Maroth is. Please have an answer ready the next time someone asks you about this, sir.

Federal action on schools accommodating transgender bathroom use

Glad to see this.

The Obama administration is planning to issue a sweeping directive telling every public school district in the country to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.

A letter to school districts will go out Friday, adding to a highly charged debate over transgender rights in the middle of the administration’s legal fight with North Carolina over the issue. The declaration — signed by Justice and Education department officials — will describe what schools should do to ensure that none of their students are discriminated against.

It does not have the force of law, but it contains an implicit threat: Schools that do not abide by the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law could face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid.

The move is certain to draw fresh criticism, particularly from Republicans, that the federal government is wading into local matters and imposing its own values on communities across the country that may not agree. It represents the latest example of the Obama administration using a combination of policies, lawsuits and public statements to change the civil rights landscape for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people.

After supporting the rights of gay people to marry, allowing them to serve openly in the military and prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against them, the administration is wading into the battle over bathrooms and siding with transgender people.

“No student should ever have to go through the experience of feeling unwelcome at school or on a college campus,” John B. King Jr., the secretary of the Department of Education, said in a statement. “We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence.”

Courts have not settled the question of whether the nation’s sex discrimination laws apply in matters of gender identity. But administration officials, emboldened by a federal appeals court ruling in Virginia last month, think they have the upper hand. This week, the Justice Department and North Carolina sued each other over a state law that restricts access to bathrooms, locker rooms and changing rooms. The letter to school districts had been in the works for months, Justice Department officials said.

“A school may not require transgender students to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so,” according to the letter, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times.

The timing of this was propitious or provocative, depending on one’s perspective. As expected, Republicans here completely lost their minds over this, even though it didn’t actually represent a change in policy, just a reminder of what was already policy, which has gained prominence due to the bathroom obsession that is now gripping so many in the GOP. (On a side note: If, as some of our Republican leaders are now whining, it is meddling for the federal government to intervene like this, then what was it when Dan Patrick demanded that a local school superintendent be fired? “Local control”, indeed.) I am certain that a lawsuit will follow, and that’s fine. It’s time to establish some precedents.

The US Department of Education laid out its policy here, and I know this sounds crazy, but it might be a good idea to read it and understand it before making any accusations about what it does and doesn’t say. It also might be a good idea to read about Nancy Sims’ experience about becoming the mother of a transgender child. It’s people like Nancy’s daughter that people like Dan Patrick and Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz are so afraid of. Honestly, I hope that one of these children confronts Dan Patrick and asks him “Why are you afraid of me? Why do you hate me?” It won’t have any effect on him, of course, but it might change the conversation the rest of us are having. Daily Kos, TransGriot, the Austin Chronicle, the Press, and Think Progress have more.

Federal appeals court sides with transgender teen in bathroom case

This could be big.

A federal appeals court in Richmond has sided with a transgender high school student, saying that he can proceed with his lawsuit arguing that his school board’s decision to ban him from the boys’ bathroom is discriminatory.

In backing high school junior Gavin Grimm, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit deferred to the U.S. Education Department’s interpretation of policies that give transgender students access to the bathrooms that match their gender identities rather than their biological sex. The federal department has said that denying transgender students access to the school bathrooms of their choice is a violation of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

“It’s a complete vindication for the education department’s interpretation of Title IX,” said Joshua Block, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Grimm.

In a 2-to-1 decision, the 4th Circuit reversed a lower court ruling, saying that court had used the wrong legal standard in denying the student a preliminary injunction that would have allowed him to use the boys’ bathroom at his high school in Gloucester County, Va. Judge Henry Floyd, who wrote the majority opinion, also ruled that the boy’s discrimination lawsuit could move forward. The appeals court remanded the case to the lower court to be reheard.

The 4th Circuit is the highest court to weigh in on the question of whether bathroom restrictions constitute sex discrimination, and the decision could have widespread implications on how the courts interpret the issue as civil rights activists and local politicians battle over school bathrooms.

“The Department’s interpretation resolves ambiguity by providing that in the case of a transgender individual using a sex-segregated facility, the individual’s sex as male or female is to be generally determined by reference to the student’s gender identity,” the court wrote.

[…]

The decision’s legal implications are far broader than just Grimm’s case, as it could shape other court battles, including one in North Carolina, where a transgender university student and employee already have sued to overturn the new law there. Other judges outside the 4th Circuit, which includes North Carolina, could look to the court’s ruling in future legal fights because it is the highest court so far to weigh in on the legality of bathroom restrictions for transgender students.

The Obama administration has taken the position that such restrictions for students are a violation of Title IX, and officials in Washington have warned school districts that they risk losing federal funding if they fail to accommodate transgender students. Following a civil rights complaint, the U.S. Education Department found that an Illinois school district violated Title IX when it barred a transgender girl from a girls’ locker room.

But lower-court rulings have gone against the Obama administration’s position, including in Grimm’s case, when a district judge ruled that Title IX protects students from discrimination based on biological sex, not gender identity.

There are a lot of caveats to this story, beginning with this:

Judge Floyd’s opinion does contain some language that could create trouble for trans equality in the future, especially if a new president who opposes LGBT rights is elected. Though the Obama administration reads the regulation at issue in this case in a way that promotes trans rights, the regulation itself, Floyd writes, “is silent as to how a school should determine whether a transgender individual is a male or female for the purpose of access to sex-segregated restrooms.” Thus, his opinion concludes that “the regulation is susceptible to more than one plausible reading because it permits both the Board’s reading— determining maleness or femaleness with reference exclusively to genitalia—and the Department’s interpretation—determining maleness or femaleness with reference to gender identity.”

For the time being, this conclusion that the regulation is ambiguous is good news for trans individuals seeking access to the appropriate restroom, because Supreme Court precedents also call on federal courts to defer to agencies in cases such as this one. As Floyd writes, the Supreme Court’s decision in Auer v. Robbins “requires that an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulation be given controlling weight unless the interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation or statute.” Nevertheless, a new administration could rewrite the underlying regulation, if it chose to, and Floyd’s opinion does little to prevent such a rewrite from relegating trans students to a bathroom that does not correspond with their gender identity.

So long as Barack Obama — or a similarly-minded president — sits in the White House, however, Judge Floyd’s reasoning will protect trans students who are impacted by discriminatory policies governing which bathroom they may use. Floyd’s opinion was joined by Judge Andre Davis, also an Obama appointee. Judge Paul Niemeyer, a Bush I appointee, dissented from the relevant parts of Floyd’s opinion.

It’s one appellate court, and this ruling – which sent the original lawsuit back to district court – only affects states in the Fourth Circuit. Other appeals courts may rule differently, and of course this will eventually end up before SCOTUS, where who knows what will happen. So the future and the timeline are both uncertain, but the direction is right. If it acts as a deterrent to even one city or state that contemplates a similar bathroom ordinance or law, so much the better. Daily Kos has more.

More on the UIL ban of transgender athletes

From ThinkProgress:

Transgender rights in Texas took another step backward last month, when public school superintendents voted 586-32 in favor of a rule that requires schools to use birth certificates to determine the gender of student-athletes.

This law is seen not only as “an attempt to handicap transgender student-athletes’ eligibility,” but it’s also believed to be a clear violation of Title IX.

“The Department of Education has stated that Title IX covers trans students and prohibits discrimination based on gender. Not only is [this policy] not in line with the law, but it also runs counter to the recommended policies by the National Center for Lesbian Rights,” Neena Chaudhry, the Senior Counsel and Director of Equal Opportunities in Athletics at the National Women’s Law Center, told ThinkProgress. “The recommendation is that children will be able to play on a team consistent with gender identity.”

With this ruling, Texas has become one of the least-inclusive states for transgender athletes.

Using students’ birth certificates, rather than their gender identities, to place them on a team has been an informal policy in Texas for some time. But in October, the University Interscholastic League — the governing body of Texas high-school sports — decided to send the policy to the superintendents for a vote. The results of that vote, which took place in January, were released by the Texas Observer last week. It will be officially enacted on August 1.

[…]

In 2014, the Department of Education (DOE) clarified that Title IX nondiscrimination protections did extend to transgender student-athletes. Christina Kahrl of ESPNreports that Texas is budget to receive $3.2 billion from the DOE in 2016 and 2017; that money could be lost if they are found in violation of Title IX. ThinkProgress reached out to the DOE for comment, but did not hear back by the time of publication.

“The goal of Title IX is to have an environment free of discrimination, so schools need to remember that and make sure they’re not discriminating against any of their students,” Chaudhry said.

See here and here for the background. That’s a lot of money potentially at stake here. One wonders if the school districts that voted to adopt this policy were briefed on that. (One also wonders what HISD thinks of this change, but so far there has been no local reporting on this that I know of.) Since this new policy won’t be formally adopted until August, it’s hard to say how long it might take for the Justice Department to act. It’s certainly not out of the question that the matter could be unresolved as of November, in which case the election may change things. I doubt President Trump’s Department of Education would care to enforce this. Be that as it may, that’s a lot of money at risk, for a change that did not need to be made. TransAthlete has more.

Texas asks for federal funding for pre-k vouchers

Not sure how I feel about this.

BagOfMoney

Teacher groups are up in arms as Texas seeks millions from the federal government to fund a new pre-K voucher program that would begin next fall.

Last month, the Texas Education Agency applied for $30 million in prekindergarten grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education, its share of the $160 million federal Preschool Development Grants Program. If approved, officials plan to use 25 percent of that money to pay for full-day, high-quality preschool for eligible children in Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

Currently, the state funds half-day public preschool for children from low-income, educationally disadvantaged, non-English speaking and military families. Under the proposed program, parents with eligible kids would sign up for the public or private pre-K program of their choice through a lottery system. If the program meets the grant’s quality requirements, the full cost of the child’s preschool would be paid for using the grant money. At around $8,000 a year per child, the grant could add an additional 17,900 additional pre-K slots, a 25 percent increase, to the existing system.

According to the grant application, the proposal would be one of four ways the TEA would use the $30 million to “expand” and “enhance” access to full-day, high-quality preschool in Texas. Critics of the proposal, however, said it would amount to little more than the creation of a pre-K school voucher program.

[…]

While the proposal is unpopular among educators, it could find friends in the state’s newly-elected leaders. Gov.-elect Greg Abbott campaigned on smarter and more accountable funding for pre-K programs, while Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick long has been a vouchers champion.

The idea also is likely to find favor with Early Matters, a coalition organized by the Greater Houston Partnership to seek ways to expand local pre-K and child-care programs. A previous effort failed to get off the ground in 2013, when organizers unsuccessfully sought to force a referendum on a 1-cent property tax to fund expanded pre-K programs locally.

The main critic cited in the story is the Coalition for Public Schools, which sent a letter to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on October 30 outlining their issues. The Coalition’s super-minimalist website is here, and they don’t appear to have a Facebook presence, so I have been unable to find a copy of their letter and learn what their specific beefs are. Fortunately, Lisa Falkenberg was on the job and did some digging to find out more and fill in some of the gaps.

I was initially skeptical of the criticisms. After all, the Texas Workforce Commission has administered a federal subsidy system since the 1990s that essentially provides very low-income parents a voucher to pay for private child care so they can go back to work or school. A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said this program would serve as a model for the proposed one.

And isn’t it a bit early for complaints anyway? Shouldn’t we all still be singing “Kumbaya” about Texas applying for any program near and dear to President Barack Obama’s heart? After snubbing Common Core and Race to the Top – in part, for good reason, I might add – Texas announced in September that it would apply for the federal grant. Much of it would benefit Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

[…]

We need money. The grant proposal, written with the help of the folks at The Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center here in Houston, offers some good ideas.

“I guess I was kind of shocked to see the article this morning with the outcry … all about the voucher system,” said April Crawford, the institute’s director of state initiatives. “Certainly, 75 percent of it is not about a voucher approach at all. Twenty-five percent, they might go to a private program, but they also might go to a school near work that they know as a high-quality program. It just gives them more flexibility to pick and choose.”

So, what’s the problem?

For starters, a little reporting revealed I was wrong in thinking Texas had been there, done that with the Workforce Commission program. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Workforce program is about private child care. It has nothing to do with the public education system. So, there’s no risk of a private entity siphoning off dollars intended for public schools.

Then, there’s the Greater Houston Partnership’s beef. The business group, which considers pre-K its No. 1 legislative priority, has been working with Early Matters to expand and improve pre-K in Texas. A critical part of its effort is to create partnerships between school districts and private providers with extra classroom space.

“A voucher system really complicates that and gets in the way of that partnership,” said Jim Postl, former CEO of Pennzoil-Quaker State Company who heads the Partnership’s early childhood committee and is chairman of Early Matters. “The voucher system would bypass the ISDs and potentially go directly to the private providers. So, there’s less incentive for the two groups to work together.”

And then there’s the political taint of the V-word.

“I’m always suspicious when vouchers seem to come out of nowhere,” says Anthony, of Raise Your Hand.

Indeed, no one I talked to could tell me who insisted on including the voucher component. No one could really explain the purpose of it, either.

I basically agree with Falkenberg, and that leaves me back where I started. The v-word, as she puts it, is automatically suspicious, and in this case has a mysterious origin. Until that has been explained, and the concerns raised in her column have been addressed, I will be suspicious. There’s plenty of reason to not give any benefit of the doubt here. As we saw during the gubernatorial campaign, Greg Abbott isn’t interested in fully funding pre-k, so for better or worse we should continue to push for it locally.

Don’t count on that federal testing waiver

It could happen, but don’t expect your high-scoring kid to spend less time taking tests going forward.

A plan to reduce testing for higher-performing elementary and middle school students was one of the feel-good bills of the 2013 legislative session. But several experts believe it will never see the light of day in Texas schools.

The measure was passed with much fanfare, as parent groups and school districts urged lawmakers to scale back high-stakes testing across the board.

Legislators responded by sharply reducing the number of tests high school students must pass to graduate, from 15 to five exams. That measure will take effect.

But a follow-up bill, to exempt high achievers in lower grades from math and reading tests in grades four, six and seven, needs a sign-off from the federal government.

That’s unlikely, based on the federal agency’s record in enforcing the No Child Left Behind Act. The law requires annual testing in reading and writing of all public school students in grades three through eight.

But no state has been able to get that requirement eased, even as dozens have gotten waivers from other parts of the law since former President George W. Bush signed it in 2001.

“I have not seen a waiver granted on that particular requirement,” said Elaine Quisenberry, a spokeswoman for the education department, referring to the testing mandate.

Diane Rentner, deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, agreed.

“That has never been done, to my knowledge,” she said. “It would seem to violate the mandate that all students in those grades are to be tested every year under No Child Left Behind.”

[…]

In addition to the fact that no state has been exempted from the testing requirement, Texas is also handicapped by its record of resistance to the Education Department’s initiatives under Duncan.

And the law could have a major unintended consequence. If high-performing students could skip the STAAR in three grades, some fear their schools’ state and federal annual performance ratings could suffer.

See here for the background. Amused as I am by the irony of it all, this is one place where I’d support pushing back against the federal requirement. Exempting the students who are near-certainties to pass makes sense, and would allow schools to focus more time and effort on the students that need the most help. That needs to be a debate in Washington, but there’s no reason it can’t start someplace else. Too bad Texas doesn’t have much credibility on that score. We’ll see how the feds respond and we’ll go from there.

Testing waiver sought

It’s a follow up for a bill passed during the regular legislative session.

In a letter sent [last] week to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Education Commissioner Michael Williams is seeking clarification on whether the federal agency has the authority to grant a waiver on the No Child Left Behind Act, formally called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The waiver request would allow the state to comply with House Bill 866, which would allow high-performing elementary and middle school students to skip reading and math tests if they had aced them in previous years.

[…]

Williams’ letter said the bill would allow students ahead of the curve to “focus their time and energy on learning new material and not focusing every year on a test where there is a high likelihood that they would demonstrate success.”

HB 866 won’t take effect this year and the letter is not an official request for a waiver, agency officials said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I figure this is likely to be a formality, but we’ll see how it plays out.

From the “It could happen, but it won’t” department

I suppose it could be the case that Texas could get federal pre-K funds, but nobody really expects that to happen, right?

Texas could get an estimated $308 million in grants to fund one year of early childhood education if the state participates in President Barack Obama’s proposal to expand access to high-quality pre-kindergarten, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Preschool for All plan would require a one-tenth match by state pre-K funding to teach Texas’ neediest 4-year-olds, expand early Head Start programs and increase parent and family support programs that include home visits.

Gov. Rick Perry, who has declined to compete for federal grant programs in the past, is unlikely to jump on the offer.

The governor was still reviewing the proposal, a Perry spokesman said by email, noting that Texas is “a national leader in providing access to high-quality pre-K programs that ensure students are school ready.”

“Gov. Perry continues to believe that Texas knows best how to educate our children, and we will not sacrifice our standards or local control for one-size-fits-all federal mandates,” the spokesman, Josh Havens, said.

But don’t worry, he’ll judge it on its merits before coming to the conclusion he’s already reached. A bunch of business leaders have sent a letter to President Obama in support of this effort, but my guess is that they’re not the kind of business leaders who give money to Rick Perry, or who have any influence over his thinking when they disagree with him. I’m sure the states that do get these grants will be happy to get whatever Texas turns away as well. See here for more about the business coalition that’s backing this.

Aiming to attract magnets

HISD has applied for a $12 million federal grant to create as many as eight new magnet schools.

HISD’s application, which is due to the U.S. Department of Education on March 1, would create science, technology, engineering and math programs at Ryan Middle, M.C. Williams Middle, Kashmere High, Furr High and the South Early College High School in HISD and a yet-to-be-named middle school in North Forest, if the Texas Education Agency moves forward with a plan to merge the two districts.

This earlier story from before the vote has more details.

All the programs would focus on science, technology, engineering and math, subject areas that the U.S. Department of Education will favor in this year’s application process.

“It’s unprecedented,” Superintendent Terry Grier said of the focus on math and science. “This is something that’s really being pushed from the White House.”

[…]

Ryan Middle School, a campus that has historically struggled, could be converted into the HISD Middle School for Health Professions, a feeder into the prestigious DeBakey High School.

An early college high school would also open in the North Forest area, pending the merger, to allow students to earn high school and college credits simultaneously.

The stories mention six schools by name. A seventh would be a new magnet high school aimed at energy professions, something Superintendent Grier proposed a couple of weeks ago. A middle school arts magnet was also proposed.

Terry Grier

The arts middle school likely would move into a spruced-up version of the HSPVA campus in Montrose, he said. The $1.9 billion bond package HISD voters approved in November included about $80 million to relocate HSPVA to the downtown theater district. Construction of that new campus could take 18 months to two years.

No location has been identified for the new energy magnet school. HISD plans to meet with possible corporate and nonprofit partners to begin developing the curriculum and campus, Grier said. He expects it to be a campus of 500-800 students, much like DeBakey and HSPVA.

Industry leaders said they are excited to start talks with HISD.

“This high school would be highly beneficial to the energy industry, as we know there’s a great need for workers going forward,” said Joni Baird, a public affairs manager for Chevron. “We need to have our students prepared to be our future workforce.”

It’s not clear to me if the new arts magnet middle school is part of HISD’s grant application or if there’s some other school in the mix. If HISD doesn’t get the grant they’ll reconsider their options. There’s still a lot of work to be done to better organize HISD’s existing magnet schools, but this is a potentially very exciting development.

Some children left behind

Oops.

Nearly half the public schools across Texas failed to meet tougher federal academic standards this year, according to preliminary data released Wednesday.

The failures spiked sharply from last year, when a quarter of the state’s schools missed the mark.

Nearly all the districts in the Houston area earned failing grades under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, prompting increased calls from educators to change the law.

Those that fell short include the largest in the area: Alief, Aldine, Clear Creek, Conroe, Cypress-Fairbanks, Houston, Humble, Fort Bend, Katy, Klein, Spring and Spring Branch.

The local districts that met the standard – called “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP – include Friendswood, Lamar Consolidated, Sheldon, Tomball and Waller.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, urged parents not to panic.

“Parents need to think about all the other information they know about their schools when they judge the quality of them,” she said. “This year to meet AYP schools had to be performing at the equivalent of about a B-plus level, and that’s a long way from failing.”

In one sense, this doesn’t mean much of anything, since Congressional dysfunction has prevented the passage of needed updates to the original law. In another sense, this is a glimpse of what’s about to happen as the state’s tougher accountability measures kick in. I picked a great time to have school-age kids, didn’t I? The Trib has more, and a statement from the Texas AFT is beneath the fold.

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