The state agency that oversees public education in Texas lacks the power required to effectively conduct investigations into cheating cases like the one in the El Paso Independent School District, according to former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott.
Scott made the comments — his first public statements on the cheating scandal at El Paso’s largest school district — today at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. He has declined previous interview requests from the El Paso Times to discuss why the agency two years ago cleared the district of cheating allegations by then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh.
Former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia in June pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud, including rigging the federal accountability system by artificially inflating scores on the state’s standardized test. Scott, who stepped away from his position as education commissioner in July, did not mention the agency’s failure to catch cheating at EPISD during two separate audits in 2011.
But, in response to a question about whether the state agency needed more authority in its role to oversee public school districts, Scott cited the EPISD cheating scandal as “a perfect example” of the limits the agency faces during investigations.
“You had a situation where you had a complaint made about a situation at a school district,” Scott said. “The agency investigates. It is given the information it is entitled to. It does not have subpoena power in that case.”
The Texas Education Agency twice cleared EPISD of wrongdoing in 2011 in response to allegations by Shapleigh that the district was “disappearing” students at low-performing campuses to skirt state and federal accountability standards. Garcia, the former superintendent of the district, used the clean bills of health issued by the agency to dismiss allegations of cheating and accuse Shapleigh of attacking children.
After a months-long battle over public documents, the El Paso Times in April obtained evidence that suggested cheating occurred at the school district. The district reassigned two administrators after releasing documents to the El Paso Times and two months later Garcia pleaded guilty to gaming the federal accountability system.
The Texas Education Agency was tight-lipped on the issue until last month when the agency downgraded the district's accreditation status to probation and assigned a monitor to watch the EPISD and report findings to the state.
“Then the FBI or another federal agency comes in and once the FBI comes in we’re told “back off” because this is a federal investigation and the agency is certainly not going to want to get involved in messing up a federal investigation,” Scott said. “I think that having to wait until that process is over or not having the ability to subpoena records, hampers the agency’s ability to understand completely what’s going on in a situation like that.”
He quipped, “I’m not saying give them guns and badges but that may come up eventually.”
Scott was not available for further comment after the event. He said he was headed to the airport to catch a flight.