TEXAS VIEW: Public’s waning confidence in TEA

By The Houston Chronicle

Angry letters to the editor, long lines at public hearings and heartbroken stories of dashed expectations were all signs of a people losing confidence in a state agency.

That’s what Texas saw last year following the Chronicle’s publication of the series “Denied” disclosing that the Texas Education Agency had imposed an arbitrary 8.5 percent cap for decades on special education services for children in Texas public schools.

TEA has since renounced the cruel policy, and a law was passed to make sure that special ed students are not the targets of an arbitrary cap again. Notwithstanding these actions, the agency remains in a hole with regard to public trust.

In the upcoming year, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath should continue to work hard to rebuild agency credibility through open and aboveboard communication and effective management.

Unfortunately, progress at the agency remains uneven, and these past months — when the agency has been involved in a high profile kerfuffle regarding a $4.4 million no bid contract — are no exception.

A few weeks ago, Morath ordered an immediate end to the contract with a Georgia-based company engaged to help overhaul special education practices by analyzing thousands of personal records of students with disabilities. The termination came amidst allegations of favoritism within the agency in awarding the bid, charges of firing a whistleblower and accusations against the dismissed employee of covering up sex abuse in another state.

Such messy circumstances can only inspire further distrust.

Morath has ordered a review of contracting processes. But that won’t claw back the $2.2 million in federal funds that the agency has already paid for services rendered under the terminated contract.

“It feels like a very, very disturbing waste of money,” Cheryl Fries, founder of parent advocacy group Texans for Special Education Reform, told The Texas Tribune.

Other questions linger as well. Were there sufficient grounds for the contract to be entered into with a relatively unknown company without competitive bidding? What direction will the agency take in moving forward? When will the agency take steps to reach out to the families of special needs children who were denied services? Did the agency follow state procurement laws in awarding the contract?

“The way to make people trustworthy is to trust them,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote. Families all over Texas want and need to trust the TEA to be an ally in educating their special needs child. But TEA needs to get its act together and consistently behave in a trustworthy manner. In attempting to rebuild the agency’s reputation, Morath needs to be mindful that every decision counts.

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