You may have been following this story over the past several weeks. Arizona allocated $85 million to wrong schools for special-education, low-income students:
Financial miscalculations by state education administrators have resulted in hundreds of Arizona schools missing out on tens of millions of federal dollars to serve students with special needs and those from low-income families.
According to an Arizona Republic analysis of data provided by the Arizona Department of Education, the state has misallocated $85 million over the past four years, giving some schools too much and some too little.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas last month publicly announced that the state erroneously allocated $56 million in federal Title I funds for low-income students. Last week, she sent a letter to schools notifying them of another problem: $30 million in federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) grants over the past three years allocated to the wrong schools.
For some underfunded schools, this may have required them to pull general classroom funds to cover expenses for special-needs services, and prevented them from hiring additional teachers or giving raises.
“The superintendent and (Arizona Department of Education Chief of Staff) Michael Bradley are not taking this lightly,” said department spokesman Stefan Swiat. “They are taking an audit found under a previous administration and they are tackling it.”
Swiat said the start of both problems dated back to prior superintendents, although the issue with special-education funds wasn’t fully assessed by federal officials until this September.
The disclosures from the Arizona Department of Education has fueled the argument from education leaders that they need more money to properly educate the state’s K-12 students.
A separate analysis by The Republic last month exposed discrepancies with state funds allocated for students with special needs, showing hundreds of schools got more than they actually spent while hundreds more were forced to spend more than they got.
Federal law requires district and charter schools to provide all services required to educate students with special needs, regardless of how much money they get. As a result, underfunded schools must pull from funds that would have otherwise been spent to educate students without special needs.
Douglas in her letter to schools said the IDEA funding mistakes were discovered in a 2015 audit but “completely solidified” and “fully calculated” during a final federal audit in September.
“Of the roughly $640 million of IDEA grant funds that were disseminated between FY14-FY16, $15.2 million was under-allocated,” she said.
The state overallocated an additional $14 million, Swiat said.
Douglas blamed “an incorrect funding formula that became less accurate and an inconsistent mechanism for calculating funding for new and expanding charter schools.”
Swiat said the formula wasn’t adjusted to account for school growth.
Of the $1.2 billion Title I grants allocated over the past four years, the state overfunded schools $43 million and underfunded schools by $9.7 million, according to an analysis of state data.
Swiat said issues with that funding formula were discovered in a 2014 audit under a prior superintendent. He said staff told Douglas the issue was being resolved “and in fact, it compounded.”
He said neither problem began under Douglas — Douglas’ immediate predecessors were John Huppenthal, and Tom Horne before him — and that she now has new staff overseeing the state allocation of these programs.
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Douglas told schools she will submit a proposed solution to the U.S. Department of Education that will include holding harmless the overfunded schools and outlining a three- to five-year process for the state to repay the underfunded schools.
“The superintendent really, really is adamant about letting schools know that our plan is being created to have the least amount of disruption to schools as possible,” Swiat said. “We can’t take any money from the schools.”
The proposed plan would apply to both schools affected by the funds for students with special needs and for those affected by the funds for low-income students.
Douglas in her letter said the state Department of Education has some unused funds it can sweep to repay the underfunded schools, but she warned that it will likely require the department to cut spending for professional development and some other programs.
Swiat said they expect to hear sometime this spring from the U.S. Department of Education about whether to implement the proposed correction plan.
Douglas in her letter said the formula has been corrected for next fiscal year, and that the state agency has had a complete leadership turnover since the initial issue was found.
“I am optimistic that the improved policies, processes and procedures will fully remedy future allocations,” she said.
And then there was this SNAFU: AZ Board of Education violated federal law, disclosed student names, birthdays, test scores:
The Arizona State Board of Education violated federal student privacy law by disclosing the names of more than 1,000 Arizona students, in some cases along with their birthdays, and their scores on the AzMERIT exams in response to a public records request filed by AZCIR.
The students all attend schools that are appealing the letter grades awarded in October by the Board of Education. AZCIR filed a public records request for all such appeals, and the Board of Education on Oct. 13 provided the documents that were submitted by 73 schools. AZCIR published those documents Oct. 16 as part of its reporting detailing the reasons schools cited for appealing their grades.
However, Board staff did not redact identifying student information from the files before complying with the records request, as required by federal law. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records, including family information, test scores, grades and disciplinary records.
FERPA applies to schools and other educational institutions that accept federal funding, including the State Board of Education. Violators risk losing their federal funding.
Carrie O’Brien, an attorney at Gust Rosenfeld and the Arizona Department of Education’s chief privacy officer and director of legal services from 2012 to 2016, said the breach is troubling, and should prompt the Board of Education to revisit its data practices.
“If I was a parent, and that was my kid’s data, I wouldn’t have been happy,” she said. “The fact that it was published on the internet makes it worse. The magnitude is that much greater.”
AZCIR learned on Oct. 24 that the documents it published included federally protected student information when an administrator for New School for the Arts and Academics, a charter school in Tempe, asked for documents related to its appeal to be removed from the AZCIR website.
The charter school also informed the Arizona Department of Education that its student data had been released to the media.
Upon examination, AZCIR discovered that student names were included in appeals filings for six schools: Cesar Chavez High School, Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, Leading Edge Academy East Mesa, New School for the Arts and Academics, Paramount Academy and Sinagua Middle School.
In addition to the names, the data included student scores on AzMERIT tests. In several cases, student birthdays were also included.
AZCIR immediately removed the files from its website.
On Oct. 25, Catcher Baden, the Board of Education’s deputy director and spokesman, told AZCIR that the Board had learned of the disclosure earlier that day. He said he could not comment at that time.
The next day, the Board of Education informed AZCIR and other media organizations that it had incorrectly released records with student identifying information. It is unknown if the Board informed the schools whose students’ privacy was violated, though an administrator at one of the schools was unaware of the disclosure until contacted by AZCIR.
Dr. Karol Schmidt, the executive director of the Board of Education, said her staff had actually prepared redacted versions of the appeals documents, but an employee inadvertently sent the original documents to the media.
“It was an honest mistake,” she said.
Schmidt said the employee who made the mistake was still on staff, but she declined to identify the employee. However, she did say that the Board is adding new procedures to ensure similar disclosures don’t happen in the future.
“Going forward, there will be review by the executive director and attorney general, as appropriate, before the files go out,” she said.
Arizona seems to follow the Peter Principle: “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.” Maybe the employee who inadvertently sent these student records should move up and run for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Why the hell not? This is Arizona.