For the first time since George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, the House has passed a major rewrite of federal education law. On Friday, the House approved the Student Success Act along party lines -- Republicans for, Democrats against -- but the bill has little chance of getting past a Democratic Senate and a White House veto threat. Democrats in Washington don't trust the states to hold themselves accountable, and a recent audit of how Texas has mishandled a half billion-dollar contract with testing giant NCS Pearson shows why.
In 2010, Texas gave NCS Pearson a $468-million contract to write, publish and score 17 tests for grades 3-8 and 15 tests in high school, far exceeding federal requirements under NCLB. Everything is bigger in Texas, including the role that private contractors play in public schools.
The problem is that Texas also takes pride in the light touch it applies in regulating businesses even when a private business is carrying out a public function. But there are limits. This month, State Auditor John Keel released a report that revealed how the Texas Education Agency hasn't been very accountable when it comes to accountability in education.
The Auditor noted that the contract with NCS Pearson didn't include "sufficient detail about deliverables," and the TEA "does not independently verify that changes in the amount of the contract are reasonable." This might have cost Texas taxpayers millions of dollars. When the legislature this year cut the number of required tests in high school by 67%, the total amount of the testing contract was cut by $6.2 million, or 1.3%, apparently because NCS Pearson said so.
"The Agency relies on the vendor to calculate the amounts of the reductions in contract," reported the auditor, which noted that the only documentation the TEA had to back up the price change were "electronic files that originated from the vendor." The fox doesn't need to guard the henhouse when he can get the farmer to build him his own door.
Oversight of a $468-million contract didn't seem to rank very high on the TEA's list of priorities. Senior TEA employees responsible for managing the contract never took required training courses that dealt with managing contracts. The TEA can only prove it approved a fraction of the test questions our children had to answer. And when it came to preventing conflicts of interest, the TEA only followed the rules by changing its rules--but only when it came to NCS Pearson.
The audit also found fault with the TEA's suspension of a 1-year revolving-door ban on employees going to work for vendors to "allow the state's assessment contractor more flexibility in meeting future staffing needs," according to a TEA memo. And once again, this loophole in the TEA's ethics policy was only written into NCS Pearson's contract and left the revolving-door ban in place for every other vendor. As nice as this must have been for NCS Pearson, this ethics loophole violated one state law forbidding hiring by vendors within the 12-month window and another state law requiring disclosure when it happens.
When legislators contemplated rolling back test-based graduation requirements this year, TEA chief Michael Williams preached restraint.
"I would urge us to remember that we treasure what we measure. You do it in your business," Williams told lawmakers. "And what gets tested does indeed get taught."
Williams likes pithy sayings, so here's one: Why are test-takers being held more accountable than test-makers?
Williams did not respond to an interview request. The TEA's response has been to roll over, show the auditor its puppy belly and promise never to pee on the carpet again. Neither Williams nor Gov. Rick Perry has rolled up a newspaper and publicly scolded anyone. Not a single state employee has been fired. Despite the millions of dollars spent without oversight and the state ethics laws that were circumvented, no one is getting prosecuted. And most predictably of all, NCS Pearson still has the fattest testing contract in state history.
Congressional Republicans want to convert education spending to block grants, in effect handing blank checks to the Don't Mess With Ethics gang. Even for congress, this is a bad idea.
This post originally appeared on Jason Stanford's blog, Behind Frenemy Lines .