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Rep. Dutton seeks investigation into TEA handling of charter schools

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

An investigation of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will be sought through a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, according to Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston).

At a press conference today, Dutton introduced Linda Johnson, CEO of Gulf Shores Academy Charter School in Houston.

"We're really drawing a line in the sand," said Dutton, who said a complaint is being filed on behalf of Johnson's school asking for an investigation into TEA's relationship with charter schools in general in Texas, but more specifically regarding proposed actions against Gulf Shores Academy.

Dutton also noted that the complaint is going through the Office of Civil Rights because he sees one issue in the ongoing battle is "the race of these children who are going to these schools." He said if the Gulf Shores school did not exist, that would eliminate an alternative for education services for a group of students who "are black for the most part, and brown." He called that the basis of the complaint to the Office of Civil Rights. The Houston lawmaker said he also will file an open records request of TEA, seeking every document at the agency relating to the Gulf Shores school.

Dutton said there are currently some 190 charter schools in Texas, with a student population of 75,000 students, 80 percent of whom are minorities. The Gulf Shores Academy, said the Houston Democrat, was opened in 1999 as a charter school arm of the Houston Independent School District. It later broke off into the Gulf Shores Academy.

Dutton said that TEA, almost from the beginning of the school's history, has been threatening Johnson with closure of her facility. He said TEA has been in the facility more than 25 times "to audit something." He said the latest audit, in March, covered a period from 1999 to 2003 regarding attendance records. As a result of the audit, said Dutton, TEA said the school owes the state $10.6 million, cumulative over the four school year periods for which the school was audited.

Citing what she called "hidden agendas," Johnson said she would like to know who is sending the directives to close the school. The school official said every time a TEA representative comes to the school for some kind of audit, their last statement to her is, "Ms. Johnson, they sent me here to close you down."

Dutton said the most recent TEA audit suggests that the school didn't have certain records that Johnson did, in fact, have. He said TEA said there were no special education records. "That is absolutely false," he said. He said not only did Johnson have the records, but the TEA auditors also actually signed for the papers.

Audits prior to the March audit never indicated any of the things the current audit suggests, said the representative. Assuming Johnson does, indeed, owe the state $10 million, Dutton said TEA officials have never proposed any kind of payment plan that would allow the school to stay open. He said the charter school has graduated some 1,600 students who "chose to go there because they thought they could get a better education there."

The Houston lawmaker said TEA should focus its attention on improving charter schools in Texas, not trying to close them down. "Every year, TEA has picked on a charter school," he said. Although saying he is not suggesting that charter school don't have problems, Dutton said so do traditional schools.

"Nobody is accusing Ms. Johnson of malfeasance or misappropriation of any of the funds related to this audit," said Dutton. He suggested that some of the problems are likely related to the submission of data to TEA through the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS). Since the PEIMS database is the "lifeblood" of how charter and traditional schools communicate with TEA, Dutton suggested that perhaps TEA should provide charter schools access to that database as a means of eliminating data errors and omissions.

Dutton said TEA's actions are an attempt not only to close down Johnson's school, but also to prevent the students of Gulf Shores from getting an education. "I think TEA ought to be closed if they allow these charter schools to be closed," he said, adding that the blame "lies with TEA."

With 1,600 graduates, Dutton said claims by TEA that the students at Gulf Shores are not getting an education do not make sense. He added that a recent study shows Texas should be expanding the charter schools concept as opposed to closing them down. He said not only do students in charter schools do better, but the schools relieved of these students also are doing better.

TEA is "hiding behind" the fact that some of the students who show up at charter schools who say they are in the ninth grade are tested and are four to five grade levels behind. Then when the TAKS test is administered, charter schools have to figure out how to eliminate the grade levels they are behind in one to two months, which Dutton called "virtually impossible." He said rather than penalize the charter schools, the TEA should be saying the traditional schools from which these students come ought to be paying money back to the state for not educating them.

Dutton blasted TEA officials for not offering help, but instead offering threats. He said Johnson reportedly received a letter Monday from Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley regarding the rumored closing of the school. "It doesn't talk about how to help," said Dutton.

TEA officials "don't have the best interest of the children in mind," said Dutton, and don't care about the people running the schools. He said they should make "every attempt" to help students get an education, particularly those "put out and locked out" of traditional schools.