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LA Dept of Ed Officials React to SPEDx’s Bad Publicity in Texas: An Email Exchange

March 20, 2018

On December 15, 2017, the Texas Tribune reported that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) terminated its “controversial no-bid special education contract” with with controversial for-profit, SPEDx (aka Avenir Education Inc.). The article opens as follows:

After pushback from special education advocates, the Texas Education Agency is terminating a no-bid contract with a company to analyze thousands of personal records of students with disabilities — and reviewing agency contract processes.

Part of the pushback in Texas was captured in this highly critical review published only days earlier, on December 13, 2017, on Houston Public Media, entitled, “Special Ed Experts Raise More Questions about Controversial Data-Mining Company,” centered on a SPEDx report using special education data from Louisiana. From the article:

More concerns are emerging about a company awarded a $4 million no-bid contract to mine special education data in Texas, based on the company’s previous work in Louisiana.

News 88.7 obtained a copy of that report by SPEDx, which experts say raises serious questions about their methods and findings.

“What jumped out at me is that it seemed counter to much of the research that has been done nationally,” said Randy Soffer, with the University of St. Thomas.

SPEDx_Louisiana-report

Soffer pointed to national research that shows children with disabilities do better academically and socially when they’re included in general education classes. But SPEDx found that in Louisiana, students made more progress when they were more isolated in special ed classes.

Soffer added other concerns include how SPEDx based its findings only on standardized test scores — instead of including student work, individualized education plans and more qualitative analysis — and how it focused on how to save money.

Now, this is where it gets interesting.

On the same day that TEA canceled its SPEDx contract, Andrea Ball of the Austin American-Statesman contacted Sydni Dunn, the press secretary at the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) for commentary on the issue:

From: Ball, Andrea (CMG‐Austin) [mailto:aball@statesman.com]
Sent: Friday, December 15, 2017 12:43 PM
To: Sydni Dunn <sydni.dunn@la.gov>
Subject: Request from reporter

Hi Ms. Dunn ‐

My name is Andrea Ball and I am a reporter at the Austin American‐Statesman in Austin, TX. I am working on a story about SPEDx, a software company that does analysis of educational programs and services.

Louisiana used this company this year to analyze individualized education plans. Texas, based on the work done in your state, has also entered into a contract with SPEDx.

There’s a lot of controversy about that contract here. But the part that involves Louisiana is that special education advocates are using your study to criticize the company, saying it is flawed and that SPEDx has a fundamental lack of understanding of special education.

I wanted to reach out to you and see if your state was happy with the work it produced, whether it has been useful and so on. Essentially, I’d like to hear about your experience with the company. Is that possible?

Thanks very much for your time and consideration.

Andrea Ball
Austin American‐Statesman
512‐459‐6249

Ball’s request caused a flurry of emails on December 15, 2017, at LDOE.

Dunn then contacted Jamie Wong, LDOE special ed policy director (who happens to have connections to SPEDx CEO Richard Nyankori via DC schools and Michelle Rhee’s TNTP). Dunn also adds LDOE chief of staff, Bridget Devlin to the email chain:

From: Sydni Dunn <sydni.dunn@la.gov>
Date: Fri, 15 Dec 2017 13:29:09 -0600
To: Jamie Wong <jamie.wong@la.gov>, Bridget Devlin <bridget.devlin@la.gov>
Subject: FW: Request from reporter

Not yet sure how I want to answer this, or if we should at all. But let’s discuss. Are we still using this company? Do we have notes from selection process about why we chose them, or some type of evaluation we could provide?

Let’s do discuss. You are still using them, Sydni. LDOE has a three-year contract with SPEDx, mysteriously for “no cost.” And on what would you have based selection, even if you had a selection process? SPEDx has no experience analyzing SPED data prior to its contract with Louisiana. So maybe you don’t want to answer this “at all.”

But back to the emails.

Wong adds LDOE assistant superintendent Rebecca Kockler and LDOE general counsel Joan Hunt to the chain:

From: Jamie Wong <jamie.wong@la.gov>
Date: Friday, December 15, 2017 at 2:14 PM
To: Sydni Dunn <sydni.dunn@la.gov>, Bridget Devlin <bridget.devlin@la.gov>, Rebecca Kockler <rebecca.kockler@la.gov>, Joan Hunt <joan.hunt@la.gov>
Subject: Re: Request from reporter

Looping in Rebecca and Joan. I think we need to keep a response very short but should make sure they note that we did not spend any money on this.

“We did not spend any money on this.” Such a loaded statement. It’s as if it is okay to offer access to state SPED data to a for-profit whose reputation is in question in Texas for its shoddy Louisiana report just so long as the access to student IEPs and resulting, poorly-executed research is not being funded through LDOE. (More to come on the funding and access fronts.)

Kockler then adds this:

On Dec 15, 2017, at 3:18 PM, Rebecca Kockler <rebecca.kockler@la.gov> wrote:

Did you all listen to the Houston Public Radio article on our report?

Wong responds:

From: Jamie Wong <jamie.wong@la.gov>
Date: Friday, December 15, 2017 at 3:27 PM
To: Rebecca Kockler <rebecca.kockler@la.gov>
Cc: Sydni Dunn <sydni.dunn@la.gov>, Bridget Devlin <bridget.devlin@la.gov>, Joan Hunt <joan.hunt@la.gov>
Subject: Re: Request from reporter

No can you share link?

Sent from my iPhone

And so, Kockler shares the link to the Houston Public Media article noted previously in this post:

From: Rebecca Kockler <rebecca.kockler@la.gov>
Date: Friday, December 15, 2017 at 3:32 PM
To: Jamie Wong <jamie.wong@la.gov>
Cc: Sydni Dunn <sydni.dunn@la.gov>, Bridget Devlin <bridget.devlin@la.gov>, Joan Hunt <joan.hunt@la.gov>
Subject: Re: Request from reporter

https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/2017/12/13/256551/special‐ed‐experts‐raise‐more‐questions‐ about‐controversial‐data‐mining‐company/

Five minutes later, Rebecca adds:

From: Rebecca Kockler
Sent: Friday, December 15, 2017 3:37 PM
To: Jamie Wong
Cc: Sydni Dunn; Bridget Devlin; Joan Hunt
Subject: Re: Request from reporter

Sydni I’m going to call you this afternoon. Talking through with John now.

And four minutes after that:

On Dec 15, 2017, at 3:39 PM, Rebecca Kockler <rebecca.kockler@la.gov> wrote:

Sydni, does she want to publish today? Can I call you in an hour or so?

And, in the final part of this email exchange, Dunn responds:

From: Sydni Dunn
Sent: Friday, December 15, 2017 3:42 PM
To: Rebecca Kockler
Cc: Jamie Wong; Bridget Devlin; Joan Hunt
Subject: Re: Request from reporter

I didn’t want to respond without getting details from you all first. Her deadline is likely ASAP, so yes, call me when you can.

Sent from my iPhone

Not sure whether Dunn responded to Ball. However, Ball’s article, which was published at 7:09 p.m. later the same day, on December 15, 2018, includes no mention at all of Louisiana or its questionable SPEDx contract.

It seems that between the time of Ball’s lunchtime email to LDOE and her 7 p.m. publishing of her article, TEA decided to kill Texas’ SPEDx contract and that such news may have altered Ball’s focus from Louisiana’s contract.

It is also possible that Dunn chose not to contact Ball.

Below is Ball’s December 15, 2017, article, in full:

The Texas Education Agency has canceled its contract with a technology company charged with analyzing special education programs.

The TEA had contracted with SPEDx, a Georgia-based company, to look for trends and patterns in special education records. But the $4.4 million project incurred the ire of advocacy groups and parents, who said they worried about privacy and the fact that it was a no-bid contract.

“Significant concerns have been raised regarding our agency’s processes and the scope of the project,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement Friday evening. “The efficacy of the project would be undermined without real support from parents and educators alike. As a result, this project cannot proceed effectively. TEA will continue to work with parents and educators to identify methods to improve outcomes for our special education students.”

Earlier this year, the TEA hired SPEDx to analyze individualized education plans, which are records detailing the services provided to children in special education. Those records contain highly confidential information, such as medical conditions, educational performance and family history.

The state signed two contracts with SPEDx for a total of $4.4 million. Although billed as an analytics project, most of what SPEDx had been hired to do was to help the state with strategic planning of special education services.

The TEA never announced the contracts publicly to parents. Instead, the deal was discovered by Texans for Special Education Reform, a group of parents, educators and other special needs advocates.

The group’s co-founder, Cheryl Fries, was pleased to hear the contract has been canceled, but added that “the dismissal of this contract is not the end of the story. It’s the beginning of a new chapter to hold TEA accountable and to let them know that Texas parents, of children with special needs or not, are paying attention and should be involved in their planning for our children.”

The controversial project blew up on a number of levels.

For months, Texans for Special Education Reform had been lobbying against the project, speaking about it with TEA officials. In November, the state’s then-special education director, Laurie Kash, was disciplined by her boss for criticizing the project. Kash later filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Inspector General, saying the project didn’t go through the proper channels. She also raised concerns that a TEA employee might have funneled the contract to a friend, an allegation that an internal audit dismissed.

Kash was fired the night before Thanksgiving. TEA officials said it was because she is facing a lawsuit in Oregon that claims she tried to cover up sexual abuse allegations of a little girl while working at her former job. Kash and her attorney said she had been retaliated against for raising her concerns about the contract.

Last week, Disability Rights Texas and the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education called for a halt to the project because of concerns about it and about the lack of transparency surrounding it. The TEA said at that time that it would not cancel the contract.

But on Friday evening, the TEA sent out a statement to reporters saying it had pulled the plug. The cancellation takes place in 15 days and SPEDx must destroy all the data it has received, the agency said.

Morath has also started a review of the agency’s contracting processes.

Ball followed up with this article on December 28, 2017:

At 5 p.m. on a Friday, the Texas Education Agency abruptly announced that it had pulled the plug on a special education data-mining project it had defended for months.

Parents and advocacy groups had too many concerns over the $4.4 million, no-bid contract, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said. He promised to review the agency’s contracting processes.

But documents, contracts and emails obtained by the American-Statesman show that the deal with Atlanta-based SPEDx was vetted at the highest levels. Morath was regularly updated on the project, approved the no-bid designation and signed the contractPenny Schwinn, deputy commissioner of academics, helped write it. Justin Porter, executive director of special populations, worked closely with the company.

On Dec. 15 — after weeks of intense scrutiny by parents and advocacy groups — the TEA walked away, saying it did not have the necessary buy-in.

“As a result, this project can not proceed effectively,” Morath wrote in a statement emailed to the media.

The now-scrapped project is another black eye for an agency that has been accused in recent years of failing to serve special education students properly. While no investigative body has said any laws or rules were broken, the effort has prompted an internal review of the agency’s procurement policies and a federal investigation. And it has spurred the ire of advocacy groups who say they yet again have reason to distrust the TEA.

Read here for a more detailed version of Ball’s investigation into SPEDx and TEA. Though the more detailed account mentions Louisiana, it includes no comment from LDOE. It does, however, note that “The Louisiana effort was the only such project SPEDx had ever done and, at the time the TEA showed interest in the company, it was still in progress.”

As to Wong’s comment, “We did not spend any money on this [SPEDx’s Louisiana study]”: I have heard from a third party that Wong is the one who disclosed that the Broad Foundation is paying SPEDx for its Louisiana analysis of SPED data. I have not yet confirmed this connection, and I am still awaiting results of additional Louisiana public records requests for email exchanges related to SPEDx and possibly some more documentation from Texas.

It is possible that Broad is supporting SPEDx as it gains experience via Louisiana and by way of convenient connections, including Wong’s and Nyankori’s past connection via DC schools.

It is possible that LDOE turned over its SPED data  for “no cost” to novice SPEDx so that SPEDx could advertise that “have done this before” (or “are doing this now”) in order to drum up business.

I have more emails between SPEDx CEO Richard Nyankori (and associates) and LDOE officials, which will shed light on how SPEDx operates– and with whom.

I’ll save that for another post.

In the meantime, those who wish to read my SPEDx series to date can do so by clicking this link.

Happy Iceberging!

iceberg-clevenger-small

____________________________________________________________________________________

Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

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