TxSER at Work

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the iep analysis project

Texans for Special Education Reform Public Statement
November 20, 2017

Texans for Special Education Reform (TxSER) is a grassroots advocacy organization of parents, educators, advocates and disability allies committed to supporting and advancing the educational civil rights of Texas children with disabilities and to improving special education in the state. TxSER formed in response to the Houston Chronicle’s 2016 “Denied” series which exposed the impacts of a decade long illegal cap on the number of Texas children receiving special education services and supports.

In September, Texans for Special Education Reform learned that Texas school districts were contacted during the summer of 2017 by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and encouraged to share at least three years of student Individual Education Plans (IEPs) with TEA vendor “SPEDx” in exchange for payment. The stated purpose would be for an IEP Analysis Project using data mining to identify ways to improve special education.

Though the norm and best practice for childhood disability research utilizing educational records containing confidential, personally identifiable information typically invites parents to opt in, Texas parents were not notified that IEPs were being sold by districts to a private, for-profit, business start-up. This failure to authentically engage parent stakeholders on the front end of issues that affect Texas children captured TxSER’s attention and we began to look into the project. We found several red flags.

Districts participating in the IEP Analysis Project were being asked to sign permission for the TEA vendor “SPEDx” to access several years of students’ IEPs by working directly with district IEP vendors in exchange for money, an amount determined by the number of student records shared. This effective “purchase” of several years of student IEPs ranged from $10,000 to $100,000, depending on the number of IEPs shared by the district.

SPEDx/TEA initially told districts that educational privacy laws allow districts to share records “for research,” and therefore no parental notification or permission was required or provided by TEA, and informed districts that the reports they would receive from SPEDx would not be available to parents via FOIA once received. TEA later made SPEDx an authorized representative of the agency thereby allowing it to assert the school official/authorized representative exception to FERPA protections.

Alarmed about the idea that IEPs could be “bought and sold” by for-profit vendors without parental notice, and concerned about the ways the information would be used by the vendor, TxSER began to investigate, and quickly discovered even more concerning information:

  • The vendor, SPEDx was a newly incorporated Georgia for-profit (September 2016) dba of Avenir Education with an “under construction” website and no evident work history.

  • The SPEDx contract was sole-sourced based on “deep and exclusive expertise” yet the company had no work history.

  • Neither SPEDx nor Avenir was listed on the TEA vendor website, nor was any contract posted despite a legal requirement to publish sole-sourced contracts.

  • TEA’s website information about SPEDx/the IEP Analysis Project directed at districts appeared as if SPEDx was a department of TEA rather than a vendor of TEA.

  • There was no record of RFP for a special education data analysis or any public information about the rationale, intent, methodologies, working thesis, peer-review process, scope or practical application of this for-profit “research,” nor how the private information being accessed by SPEDx would be protected.

TxSER asked the Texas Director of Special Education Dr. Laurie Kash for a meeting to find more information and express concerns. Though Dr. Kash had been hired in August when the SPEDx project was already underway, TxSER wanted to express concerns directly to Texas special education leadership. Dr. Kash was the logical person for TxSER to contact, especially because of a previous meeting during which she and Dr. Justin Porter (Executive Director of Special Populations) had expressed a sincere desire to work transparently with advocacy groups and stakeholders. During our meeting about SPEDx, Dr. Kash noted TxSER’s concerns and promised to follow through.

Through public information requests following that meeting, TxSER learned that the initial May 2017 SPEDx contract of $2.1M for five months was amended in September to add an additional $2.3M, for a total of $4.4M. This added an additional concern about the fiduciary responsibility of TEA to use IDEA discretionary funds transparently, responsibly and to the maximum benefit of Texas students. This is especially important given that many Texas students are still not receiving appropriate supports and services, and many Texas districts are faced with a financial crisis due to Hurricane Harvey.

TxSER has now learned that our meeting with Dr. Kash to address these issues, and a second meeting with Dr. Justin Porter and SPEDx, have been used by TEA leadership to reprimand Dr. Kash and accuse her of seeding TxSER’s concerns. This is not true. TxSER independently discovered, investigated and identified its concerns about SPEDx and the IEP Analysis Project without assistance from anyone at the Texas Education Agency.

We have also learned that Dr. Kash has independently of our efforts expressed concerns about legal and fiduciary issues related to the SPEDx contract with the Texas Education Agency, and that she is being punished by her superiors at TEA for doing so.

Texans for Special Education Reform is aware of the legal complaint against Dr. Kash in Oregon and shares the concerns many stakeholders have about this. We are also aware that she has put her job on the line for Texas students, school districts and taxpayers in regards to the SPEDx “IEP Analysis Project.” We commend her for this.

We have posted both contracts and the list of participating districts as of October 25, 2017 for public review. It is possible that more districts may now be participating.

TxSER’s concerns in all matters are centered around discovering the full facts, and proceeding in a manner that best serves the safety, privacy, and educational civil rights of students with disabilities in Texas. We will continue to work with our allied organizations, Texas families and Texas officials on these and other issues.

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    TxSER Public Statement

    Spanish Version

      Contract #3723 (Original)

      Signed by Commissioner Mike Morath on May 24, 2017

        Contract #3723 (Amendment)

        Signed by Commissioner Mike Morath on September 29, 2017

          Participating Texas School Districts & Charter Schools

          **List effective as of Nov 28, 2017**

            LEA/SPEDx Data License Agreement & Memorandum of Understanding

            Sample Copy

              Sample Letter to School Districts - Oppose Participation in IEP Analysis Project


                Letter of Reprimand to Dr. Laurie Kash from Dr. Justin Porter

                November 3, 2017

                  Letter of Response to Reprimand from Dr. Laurie Kash to Dr. Justin Porter

                  November 21, 2017

                    SPEDx IEP Analysis Project Report for Louisiana Dept of Education

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                    Recommendations for Parents

                    • 1. At this time, it is our recommendation to parents and local stakeholders that they contact their school district to find out whether it has shared IEPs with “SPEDx,” and if not, to discourage it from doing so until we have more information about privacy protections, and the purpose, methodologies, and application of the data collection of the IEP Analysis Project.

                    • 2. We also do not recommend parent participation in “empathy interviews.”

                    • 3. If your district has shared your IEPs by participating in this project, we recommend that you contact your elected Board of Trustees to find out what, if any, policies are in place to protect parent rights when student records are shared with private entities.

                    • 4. Ask your district for their criteria in determining who constitutes a school official or other third party with a legitimate educational interest to whom the school/district intends to disclose personally identifiable information without parental consent.

                    • 5. We encourage parents to lobby their districts to - at a minimum - only use educational technology companies (especially IEP and 504 software programs) that have signed the Student Privacy Pledge. More information about this can be found HERE.

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                    We envision a state in which all individuals with disabilities are identified, and receive an education that maximizes their future potential for post-secondary education, employment, community participation, and independent living.

                    Copyright 2017 Texans for Special Education Reform. All rights reserved.       TxSER Privacy Policy.