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Report links SESIS struggles and DOE's contracting practices

The special education data system that has teachers and parents frustrated carries a $79 million price tag — and wasn’t even tailor-made for the city schools.

That’s according to a report by Ruth Ford and Adrienne Day about the Department of Education’s contracting practices in the current issue of City Limits, the magazine of the nonprofit Community Service Society of New York.

The year-old Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS, was meant to make information about students with disabilities more accessible. But its rollout has been bumpy, with school staff and union officials complaining that using the system is burdensome.

Tracing SESIS’s origins, the City Limits report characterizes the system as “neither an unbridled success nor a total failure” but rather a symptom of the DOE’s reliance on private contractors to solve local problems — a practice that DOE officials said could soon see greater quality control.

From the article:

The DOE put out a request for proposals for a new system and got several bids. The Virginia-based consulting company Maximus won the contract.

Maximus’ motto is “Helping government serve the people,” but, as with all corporations, its bottom line is to help its shareholders. A February 2009 earnings conference call made clear that where others see policy or politics, Maximus (and probably other consultants) sees profit.

“Our business today stands well-positioned to benefit in the long run from greater demand for our services due to the economic slowdown and new legislation that calls for expansion of existing programs. This includes increased funding through the proposed $800 billion-plus stimulus plan,” Richard Montoni, Maximus’ CEO, said on the call.  …

Montoni’s monologue revealed a company in mid-pivot, shifting from a “revmax” business model—identifying and claiming reimbursable federal dollars for state and local governments—to a provider of IT services like SESIS. And SESIS, as the conference call revealed, is simply a repurposing of an existing software package called TIENET—a system that Maximus had already implemented in the Chicago school system. Montoni reassured an anxious analyst: “Naturally, we’ll have to interface it with the systems of New York City, and we’ll have to train the users in New York City on how to use it. But it should not be viewed as a custom-build situation.” Just as when [Alvarez & Marsal, the firm involved in a midyear busing debacle in 2007] came into town riding high on projects in St. Louis and New Orleans, SESIS was a case of a consultant getting big bucks to map a product created for a different (smaller) school system onto New York’s unique education superstructure.

The article also notes that a former special education executive at the DOE got special permission, and a hefty consulting fee, to help the city get SESIS online:

One of the early champions of SESIS was Linda Wernikoff, who in June 2009 retired from her job as the city’s top special-ed official, only to be rehired by the Fund for Public Schools as a DOE consultant on SESIS less than a year later. New York City’s Conflict of Interest Board signed off on a wavier for her rehire at $1,000 per day—on top of her DOE pension. (Wernikoff declined to comment for this story.)

And City Limits also reports that SESIS’s $79 million price tag could balloon because of clauses in its contract, and the city would be without recourse because has not rolled out a required “Electronic Performance Evaluation Process” for its private vendors:

Chances are that SESIS, along with many other IT contracts the city is currently engaged in, will end up costing taxpayers more than its originally stated “base” rate. City Limits obtained a copy of the SESIS contract — which, at about the thickness of The Collected Dialogues of Plato and similarly dense, is a pamphlet compared with many other such contracts — and there are several places in which it is clear that Maximus can bill the city many million dollars more under a so-called renewal of contract and also under something called a change order — which effectively renders the originally agreed-upon price of the contract obsolete. …

Meanwhile, major oversight and accountability issues loom. According to the DOE’s Procurement Policy and Procedures Manual, approved by the Panel for Education Policy, the board that oversees the DOE, in January 2010, the DOE is required to establish a process for evaluating and documenting the performance of its vendors. But no such system exists yet. Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the DOE, says, “A prototype system has been developed and will be rolled out in the near future to capture this data.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.