Mike Morath inherited one of the toughest jobs in Texas when Gov. Greg Abbott appointed him Texas education commissioner in 2015. At the time, he was a Dallas ISD trustee known for his reform work. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick praised Morath's ability to lead the agency. Abbott called him "change agent" and "proven education reformer" although he had no teaching experience and only served one year on a school board.
Morath planned to spend his first 90 days “interacting with folks both within the agency and around the state, the superintendents who consume TEA technical support service and regulatory oversight, legislators who set the rules and that sort of thing,” he told the Observer on Dec. 16, 2015. “I think I’ll have a much better picture of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats after I get through that transition plan.”
One weakness he apparently missed two years into his tenure was Texas' failure to identify and educate students with learning disabilities. According to a Jan. 11 letter from the U.S. Department of Education, his agency failed “to ensure that all children with disabilities residing in the State who are in need of special education and related services were identified, located and evaluated, regardless of the severity of their disability.”
The Department of Education says the TEA did not guarantee that Texas school districts properly met the requirements of the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That federal law and earlier ones require school districts that receive federal funds to provide a "free appropriate public education" to all students, regardless of disabilities. Tens of thousands of special needs students in Texas may have been denied appropriate education.
"Commissioner [Morath] has been working to strengthen special education supports by the agency since he began [in January 2016]," said DeEtta Culbertson, a TEA spokesperson.
Morath said he was on a mission from God to bring change to the education system in a September 2014 D Magazine article, but a Houston Chronicle investigation in September 2016 reported that Texas school districts had capped the percentage of disabled students receiving special education services at 8.5 percent since 2004.
The TEA denied the Chronicle’s allegations in a Nov. 2, 2016, Texas Tribune report. Morath’s deputy commissioner of academics, Penny Schwinn, blamed local school district staff members who “erroneously viewed the indicator’s lowest performance range as a target rather than a data point and felt discouraged to initiate special education referrals.
“The allegation that the special education representation indicator is designed to reduce special education enrollment in order to reduce the amount of money the state has to spend on special education is clearly false,” Schwinn wrote, according to a TEA press release. “Allegations that TEA issued fines, conducted onsite monitoring visits, required the hiring of consultants, etc. when districts provided special education services to more than 8.5 percent of their students are entirely false.”
Not long after Texas House Speaker Joe Straus urged Morath to overhaul TEA's system for identifying students with disabilities, the U.S. Department of Education began to investigate. It hosted five public sessions throughout Texas in December 2016 to get comments from parents.
“Among the numerous issues identified through public comments, a number of parents described how their children were unsuccessfully provided interventions through [Response to Intervention] programs for years before finally being referred for an initial evaluation for special education and related services under the IDEA,” the Department of Education wrote in this month's letter to the TEA.
RTI programs were created under President George W. Bush to try to identify struggling students early and offer them a range of programs to get them learning at grade level. They're also supposed to find students with learning disabilities and refer them to special education programs.
The Department of Education reviewed more than 400 comments and state- and district-level documents related to identification and evaluation of students with disabilities. Office of Special Education Program staff visited 12 school districts to collect data and interview teachers, administrators and staff on referral and evaluation practices. TEA representatives were also interviewed about the agency’s oversight of district special education programs.
"Every child with a disability must have appropriate access to special education and related services that meet his or her unique needs," U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a Jan. 11 Department of Education press release. "Far too many students in Texas had been precluded from receiving supports and services under IDEA."
DeVos acknowledged that the TEA had begun to take steps to fix the problem by issuing a letter to school districts that reiterated their responsibilities. She also said she was working with Morath to resolve it.
Some of the corrective actions mentioned in the Department of Education's report include creating plans to ensure that each school district identifies and evaluates children who should have been referred for initial evaluation, providing guidance to all general and special education teachers, and guaranteeing struggling learners get the support they need even if they don't qualify as learning disabled. Districts were also warned not to use the state’s dyslexia program to delay or deny a child’s right to an initial evaluation for special education and related services.
Morath has attempted to deal with some of the problems with special education in Texas. He hired a special education director, Laurie Kash, in August but fired her three months later.
He said Kash was fired because two former colleagues from an Oregon school district had alleged in a $1.8 million lawsuit that Kash threatened them when they refused to cover up allegations of a 6-year-old student’s sexual abuse.
"As a matter of policy, we do not discuss personnel files," Culbertson told the Observer in a Jan. 16 email. "That being said, the existence of allegations of this nature, given her roles and responsibilities, prevent her from carrying out her duties effectively in Texas, and the agency has terminated Dr. Kash’s employment. Dr. Kash has no business being in charge of special education policy and programming in Texas."
Kash said Morath and the TEA didn’t fire her regarding the lawsuit but that they were retaliating against her after she filed a complaint with the Department of Education on Nov. 21. In her complaint, she reported that the TEA illegally awarded a $4.4 million no-bid contract in May to the recently created, for-profit, Georgia-based company SPEDx to analyze private data about how students received special education services, the Austin American-Statesman first reported.
In her complaint, Kash claimed the TEA didn’t follow state law to publicize its justification for awarding a no-bid contract to SPEDx because a TEA staffer had a relationship with SPEDx’s founder, Richard Nyankori.
The TEA argued that it followed state and federal regulations when it awarded the contract to SPEDx, the only company it said had specialized software to aggregate and analyze the data, according to the Texas Tribune’s Nov. 25 report.
Several disability rights groups, such as Texans for Special Education Reform, Disability Rights Texas and Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education, called on the TEA to halt its contract with SPEDx.
Exactly what type of relationship the TEA staffer had with SPEDx founder Nyankori is unclear. The only connection that the Observer could find related to Morath's staff and Teach For America, the controversial nonprofit that critics claim sends ill-prepared teachers into schools of some of the nation’s neediest students.
Nyankori has been a Teach For America corps member since 1993, and three of Morath's deputy commissioners are program alumni: Penny Schwinn (academics), Megan Aghazadian (operations) and Martin Winchester (educator support).
The TEA denied the Teach For America connection had anything to do with awarding a no-bid contract to Nyankori's company.
Morath eventually shut down the $4 million data-collection program although the TEA had already paid Nyankori’s company $2.2 million in federal funds for students with disabilities.
Former Dallas Independent School District trustee candidate Lori Kirkpatrick was one of the parents who didn’t support the SPEDx contract. She didn’t even know about the TEA's plan to share her daughter's information with a for-profit company until the press began reporting it. She was so concerned that Dallas ISD had shared the information that she filed an open-records request.
Kirkpatrick couldn't understand why the school district would need to participate in SPEDx's program when it already kept sensitive information about her daughter’s learning needs, services she’s received and her progress for use by teachers and administrators.
Like other Texas families have pointed out online and in news reports, Kirkpatrick says the more she learns about the 8.5 percent cap and the no-bid contract with SPEDx, the more infuriated she becomes. So she was somewhat relieved when she learned that her daughter’s information hadn't been shared with SPEDx.
“I don’t know why Morath and the agency would want to give this sensitive information to a startup for-profit company when [children with disabilities] continued to be deprived for much needed services,” she says. “Governor Abbott said he was going to end waste, fraud and abuse. They really just betrayed Texas families.”
Texans for Special Education Reform shared a similar message in a Jan. 11 Facebook post about the Department of Education’s report:
“We are still reviewing, but we can already say that this report vindicates the thousands of Texas parent and teacher voices who tried for a decade to get someone to hear what was happening to our students. It’s critical to remember that real Texas children are behind these numbers, and the denial of their education opportunity is nothing less than moral failure by our state. We can do better Texas.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The TEA spokesperson wouldn't say how school districts were able to use 8.5 percent as the target for 13 years and deny thousands of students special education services without the agency knowing that it was happening.
In a Jan. 11 letter to Morath, Abbott said that the TEA's failures highlighted by the Department of Education would end. "While the problems indicated in the report started long before you arrived at the TEA, our parents and students demand significant actions be taken now to improve special education in Texas," he wrote.
Abbott told Morath that he wanted a draft of a corrective plan of action within the next seven days.
"The corrective action plan called for by the governor will outline the specific steps TEA will take to address all the identified issues," Morath said in a statement responding to Abbott's directive. "Parent and special education advocacy group representatives will play an ongoing integral role in helping shape this plan, as well as all efforts of the agency in the years ahead. My top priority has and continues to be to improve outcomes for all students in Texas."