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Here’s why Texas school districts are suing the state's head of public education

 Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath
Chris Paul
Houston Public Media
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath

Arlington and Denton ISDs on Thursday became the latest districts to join a lawsuit against Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath over a revised accountability system they say sets districts up to fail.

The lawsuit, filed in Travis County on Aug. 24, initially consisted of seven school districts. Since then, several others have voted to join.

Among other issues, Arlington trustees said Morath has not laid out all the new rules they need to follow — despite a requirement to do so.

“In Arlington ISD, we welcome changes to the accountability system that will help us grow and improve,” Board President Melody Fowler wrote in a statement after Thursday’s vote. “But the manner in which these changes are being made is the issue. Changes should be implemented legally and in a way that actually enables school districts to achieve its goals and further student progress.”

Arlington and Denton join the Fort Worth and Plano districts — which both voted to join the litigation this week — as well as Dallas, Red Oak, Crowley, Frisco, Prosper and Richardson, among others.

Critics of the revised policy are concerned the timing of the changes will hurt district ratings ahead of a special legislative session on school vouchers slated for October.

“There was a lot of speculation that the changes to the system and when they were going to be published was absolutely playing straight into the governor’s voucher push,” said Kelsey Kling, government relations and policy analyst with Texas AFT, a union representing public school employees.

Established in 2017, the TEA’s A-F accountability ratings measure school performance along with student preparedness for college, the workforce or the military.

Since it was first enforced during the 2018-19 school year, the system has stayed the same.

However, major disruptions have impacted the education system, mostly due to the pandemic and its aftermath, said Kling.

Morath and the TEA started revising the A-F accountability metrics in October 2021 and published the new calculations in January of this year. The new rules raise the thresholds for top ratings.

The changes are intended to reflect the last school year, meaning districts could face lower scores without having known about the criteria.

Speakers at Fort Worth ISD's school board meetingTuesday said the retroactive changes were unreasonable, and most supported the district joining the lawsuit.

“To implement a criteria, a new criteria, after the fact doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” said Jennifer Nelson, a Fort Worth ISD parent. “And it’s also seemingly very, very unfair to try to implement it after the testing has already occurred.”

The Texas education commissioner is permitted to periodically review and consider revisions to performance ratings, according to the Texas Education Code.

Even though students have been back in school since fall 2020 — the first full semester of the pandemic — Kling said they’re still feeling the impact years later.

“There are still broader consequences in student situations related to the pandemic that they are still recovering from,” she said. “It seems unfair to put this on our school districts and on our students right now.”

The TEA temporarily delayed the release of the 2022-23 school year accountability ratings, which were initially planned to come out Sept. 28.

The month-long delay will “allow for a further re-examination of the baseline data used in the calculation,” according to a TEA news release.

The TEA declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

The change in the accountability rating system also coincides with changes to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test in the 2022-23 school year.

One of the more obvious changes with the STAAR test is that it’s now administered primarily online, which is different for students in third grade or above who have never tested online before, Kling said.

The STAAR revisions also changed some question formats and added a writing component for all grade levels.

“Big changes in the assessment system, big changes in our world and it just seemed a wee bit unfair to put all these changes to the accountability system onto our schools,” Kling said.

The retroactive changes to the accountability rating system coinciding with the STAAR redesign have led some Texas school leaders to believe they’re being targeted.

Plano Superintendent Theresa Williams said at a Dallas Regional Chamber event on public education this week — during which Morath was the keynote speaker — that her school district welcomes accountability, but the sudden change doesn’t recognize the hard work of teachers and students.

“You see the growth, you see the improvement,” Williams said. “To all of a sudden [say] 'we’re going to relabel something,' doesn’t really seem like rigor. But to me, and not just to me but to our teachers because we hear from them, it’s demoralizing.”

Got a tip? Email Megan Cardona at mcardona@kera.org.

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Megan Cardona