Parent Lawsuit Against Texas Education Agency Headed for Courtroom on Wednesday

COMMISSIONER MIKE MORATH FILES FOR PROTECTIVE ORDER AGAINST PARENTS; TEA AND ETS WORKING TOGETHER TO KEEP PUBLIC RECORDS ABOUT STAAR SECRET

- - -

Parents asking why both Commissioner Morath and Educational Testing Service would refuse to make documents available that show the TEA and STAAR complied with the law.

- - -

AUSTIN — Next week, Texas public school parents demanding that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) be held accountable for noncompliance with state law will finally get a preliminary day in court. A hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday, August 17 in connection with Lewis et al. v. Morath, a lawsuit brought by four parents from the Houston, Dallas, Austin and Beaumont areas seeking declaratory judgment. The parent plaintiffs seek to have the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) scores for Grades 3-8 thrown out because those assessments didn’t comply with new laws passed by the Texas Legislature on an emergency basis last summer.

In pleadings filed by Attorney General Ken Paxton, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath argues that parents do not have a right to challenge the TEA in court. The Defendant’s Plea to the Jurisdiction provides at least a half dozen excuses for why his agency shouldn’t have to answer in court, including a claim of sovereign immunity, a lack of funding for the directive by the Texas Legislature, and a nebulous suggestion that three branches of government is too many to involve in the matter. 

However, the most outlandish excuses were Mr. Morath’s claims that (1) STAAR scores result in no harm to students and (2) if there is any harm, it is imposed by local school districts, not the TEA.

One plaintiff, Claudia de León, a parent of two Houston elementary school students, says, 

“Suggesting that losing electives like music class or art to work on ‘test-prep’ is somehow a benefit to my children’s learning or arguing that the consequences like firing teachers and principals due to a poor school rating doesn’t have a real and lasting impact on my kids is completely out of touch with what happens in Texas schools each day. Anyone making that argument either has an agenda beyond the truth or hasn't had kids in Texas public schools.”

Mr. Morath’s bevy of dubious claims were never-the-less expected as a legal tactic to draw out the litigation—increasing the time and expense necessary for parents to get relief from a judge. However, what does come as a shock is the extent to which Mr. Morath, the TEA, its vendor Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the Attorney General are working together to keep records and communications about the STAAR hidden from public view. 

Though Texas Rules of Civil Procedure outline the discovery process by which plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses begin sharing documentation and evidence related to a lawsuit, Mr. Morath has asked the court to protect him from having to respond to plaintiffs’ discovery requests, and thereby effectively shield ETS from similar discovery obligations. Mr. Morath goes so far as to allege that documents which would either prove the TEA did or did not comply with state law are “burdensome” to produce prior to a judge ruling on whether the court has jurisdiction in the case.

Scott Placek, of the law firm Arnold & Placek and lead attorney for the plaintiffs, describes the requests for information as “basic” and “straight-forward.” The plaintiffs’ request for information includes asking the commissioner to describe simple statements like “Other than eliminating field test questions, the TEA implemented no other measures to the STAAR assessment to comply with [the education code]” as true or false, and asking the TEA to produce basic summary information like “For each STAAR assessment administered in grades 3-5 for 2016, state the percentage of students that completed the assessment in less than 120 minutes.” 

In reference to the protective order and allegation of burdensome requests, Mr. Placek stated, 

“If the TEA followed the law, answers to these questions would seem to be remedial in nature and the agency, a public entity, should expect that the answers are owed to the public regardless of whether it is responding to a lawsuit. I am shocked the attorneys for the defendant didn’t counsel Mr. Morath to be more open and transparent during this stage of the process.”

This hearing is seen as a “do or die” moment in this grassroots effort by parents. While the TEA has the unlimited legal support of the Texas Attorney General’s office at its disposal, the plaintiffs’ ability to fight obstructionist legal tactics such as the TEA’s Motion for Protective Order and Motion to Stay Discovery is dependent upon small online donations by hundreds of passionate parents and teachers.

Ben Becker, Chair of The Committee to Stop STAAR, who will attend the hearing next week says, 

“Many, many supporters have worked hard for several months and have counted on expert advice and representation by Arnold & Placek to get us to this point. Our goal is simple: We want the TEA to be transparent about what they know and what they did with regard to the design and administration of this year’s STAAR. And we want to have a judge hear our complaint and decide whether this year’s STAAR conformed with the law. It’s that simple, and we don’t think that our public servants should be working so hard to keep parents from allowing that to happen.”

The Committee to Stop STAAR was formed out of a grassroots fundraising campaign supporting legal action against the TEA. Donors to the campaign are a diverse group of parents, grandparents, teachers and concerned citizens from around the state who demand action after the TEA ignored the common sense reforms that many felt they had won during last year’s legislative session. Fundraising began on March 30, 2016—the same week as the first administration of this year’s STAAR—with a GoFundMe campaign (gofundme.com/StopSTAAR) that has since raised over $22,000 from more than 300 donors. On the way to a fundraising goal of $25,000, donations have ranged from $5 to $5,000 dollars and have come from every corner of the state. The Committee is seeking additional support to keep the suit going through hearings and a court decision.

###

 

Timeline & Documentation of TEA’s Delayed Disclosure of ETS Report That Documented 2016 STAAR Was Out of Compliance with HB-743 Time Limits

Texas Education Agency Responds to Lawsuit; Claims Parents Have No ‘Standing’