DISD Says It's Not Sitting on Federal Funds. It's Actually Trying to Keep From Wasting Them.

We started this morning by noting Brett Shipp's piece from last night suggesting the Texas Education Agency is threatening to withhold Dallas ISD from close to $80 million in federal funds birthed by No Child Left Behind. The reason, says Commissioner of Education Robert Scott: Only 40 students out of an eligible 29,349 have gotten their after-school tutoring paid for. Which, on the surface, sounds just horrible.

But DISD says today that's far from the whole story. Like, very far. Like, not even half the whole story. More like a couple of chapters from a really long story.

As proof we were sent the January 27 letter interim DISD superintendent Alan King sent to Scott in response to his January 13 warning letter on which Shipp based his account last night. In the letter, which follows, King writes that the reason DISD hasn't spent the money is because while performing its annual audit the district discovered "potential irregularities involving invoices received from several vendors" -- all of whom, incidentally, are tutoring services approved by TEA. Writes King, who later outs the issue as one involving double-billing, "the district took immediate action by reorganizing the department in charge of oversight for the program and hired a forensic team to conduct further investigations into the program."

King writes that district staff and TEA employees chatted about this in October, and that the result was an "action plan" that would resolve the hold-up. In the meantime, DISD continued trying to find out where the irregularities had come from -- inside 3700 Ross or with the contractors TEA had signed off on. Says the letter:

The initial concerns were that district employees were being paid by both the district and vendors for the same work or tutors were being paid by multiple vendors for the same time period. The District's Office of Professional Responsibility conducted a sampling of interviews with several district employees and found no indication of employee misconduct. The District, therefore, concluded that the apparent fraudulent activity was conducted by the vendors and the forensic audit team focused their procedures on these vendors.
Now here's where it gets really interesting ...

Not only is DISD concerned that those tutoring services are double-dipping from federal funds, but the district also doesn't think much of those tutoring services -- all of whom, you'll recall, are on TEA's list of approved vendors. This isn't easy to find. But there is a report, which you'll find here, that breaks down the services providers, which have names like Allegiance Learning Solutions, Cool Kids Learn, Cranium Maximus, Little Genius Private Learning, Orion's Mind and Sheila Williams Lyons: Acknowledge Me Now. According to the district, most of the 11,268 kids who enrolled in the tutoring services used Group Excellence (2,695 students), Apex Academics (1,593) or Tutors with Computers (1,129). And the district "funded SES at $1,490 per student," per the report.

But, says DISD's evaluation, it didn't appear to get much, if anything, for its investment. From Page 80 of the report:

For TAKS math vertical score means, SES eligible non-tutored students outperformed SES tutored students in the sixth grade by an average of 21 points. There was no significant difference between tutored and non-tutored students' vertical math scores in the seventh and eight grades. For TAKS reading, SES eligible non-tutored students outperformed SES tutored students in all three grades by an average of 17 points.
Eleven pages later, after a lot of data-crunching, the district determined:
In a broader sense, SES is a clear non-factor in helping students pass the TAKS that otherwise might not pass. When examining the rates between enrolled and non-enrolled (and tutored and nontutored), SES is not helping students who previously failed the TAKS test to pass this year, and there-in help schools make AYP. This is probably due in part to the fact that the majority of SES participants have previously passed the TAKS test and the fact that many providers are apparently not able to improve student academic performance.
Which brings us back to King's letter, in which he notes that the district's actually requested a waiver from TEA to "repurpose the mandatory set aside for SES services to a more productive initiative." Because, as the report notes, DISD doesn't think SES is very, you know, productive. Writes King:
The District will set aside approximately $10 million to hire teachers at Stage 2 and above AYP campuses in order to lower class sizes. Since all 26 campuses that meet this criterion are "school-wide", allocations will be distributed evenly across the affected campuses. Teachers will be hired according to the specific area of improvement of each campus. The improvement areas are math, reading, attendance and/or graduation rate. This proposal will allow the District to hire approximately 166 teachers or 6.4 additional teachers per campus.
TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson says the agency is "assessing the letter" from King, but since there's an "ongoing investigation, there's not a whole lot we can say." But "the bottom line is," she adds, "we need to make sure the students in Dallas ISD are being properly served."Tea Response Ses 012312 Slk v4[6]

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky