*Correction appended

Disability rights advocates are asking the state to suspend a $4.4 million no-bid contract with Georgia-based company SPEDx to mine data from students receiving special education services in Texas public schools.

Leaders from Disability Rights Texas and the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education sent a letter Tuesday evening to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath urging him to review the purpose of the project with parents and advocates, share documentation of the process of procuring the contract and strengthen the protections for students' privacy. TEA contracted with SPEDx this May through August 2018 to digitally analyze specialized plans for serving students with special needs — which include information such as students' medical conditions and educational progress — and identify trends to help improve special education.

"A temporary suspension of the project is the only appropriate action given the questions surrounding it at this time," the letter reads. "When TEA appears to work in isolation, students with disabilities, parents, educators, and administrators ultimately pay the price."

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The letter comes several days after the Texas Education Agency's former special education director, Laurie Kash, filed a federal complaint alleging the agency had not followed state or federal law when it entered into the contract. Kash was fired a day after filing the complaint; TEA officials say they terminated her because she didn't disclose accusations that she had covered up sexual abuse of a 6-year-old when she worked in Oregon. She has denied wrongdoing in the case.

Kash argues she was fired for being a whistleblower. She alleges Penny Schwinn, TEA deputy commissioner of academics, offered SPEDx a no-bid contract without seeking other proposals because of a personal relationship with someone at the company. She argues many other private and governmental organizations could perform the analysis SPEDx is undertaking.

After Kash's initial complaints, TEA conducted an internal audit and found all allegations of unfair preferential treatment for SPEDx untrue. Agency officials say SPEDx has specialized software that make it uniquely qualified to carry out the work in the grant.

TEA said in a statement Wednesday that both advocacy groups have been aware of the project for several months and that agency staff would keep meeting with special education groups to hear their concerns. 

"Commissioner Morath and TEA staff are continuing to meet with various special education stakeholder groups to hear their latest concerns," the statement reads. "Those meetings are ongoing."  

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Penny Schwinn, the TEA's deputy commissioner of academics. 

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The TEA says it fired its new special education director because she didn't reveal that she had been accused of covering up sexual abuse allegations in a previous job. Laurie Kash believes she was fired because she uncovered an illegal agency contract. [Full story]

  • Texas' special education director is facing allegations from her old job in a small Oregon school district that she tried to cover up sexual abuse of a special education student. A civil suit was filed against her last Tuesday. [Full story]

  • With a major bill for students with disabilities flying to the governor's desk, special education advocates are looking ahead to smaller bills that might not survive the upcoming deadlines for legislation to pass. [Full story]

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