Education

Grand Jury Calls for Removal of Regent Wallace Hall

A Travis County grand jury is calling on the University of Texas System to remove Regent Wallace Hall, Jr. A four-page report released Tuesday fell short of indicting the UT system regent, but said, “we are appalled at the Regent’s unaccountable and abusive behavior,” and added that it “is in the best interest of the state” to remove Hall from office.

The grand jury had been asked to look into allegations of abuse of office, misuse of information and official oppression against Hall after he conducted a personal investigation into UT Austin President Bill Powers. The grand jury said Hall’s “abusive excess” overwhelmed the system with 800,000 pages of open records requests, and added he tried to avoid paying for the report that cost about a million dollars to complete.

“Outrageously, after requiring university staff to double their effort to fulfill these parallel requests, he actually requested not to be charged (like other private citizens are) for the cost of his private open records requests.”

The report accuses Hall of avoiding transparency and accountability by communicating orders verbally to avoid a paper trail, and said his actions led to leaks of confidential student information. The report says Hall’s “over leveraging of his power resulted in lost talent, lowered morale, exposure of student information and unreasonable expenses.”

The grand jury also recommended changes in protocols for regents in the future, including making regents pay for open records requests and establishing consequences for distributing confidential data. It also suggests requiring regents to use university email accounts for all official business like other employees.

A House Committee censured Regent Hall last year due to his investigation, and several lawmakers called for his resignation. Hall’s supporters, including then-Governor Rick Perry who appointed him, said Hall’s investigation showed irregular admissions practices at UT-Austin. Hall got some vindication from an independent investigation released earlier this year that said it did find some applicants who had been accepted to UT despite objections from the admissions office due to the insistence of UT-Austin President Bill Powers. But Powers defended those actions, saying it was a common practice at colleges around the country and was in the long-term interest of the university. System Chancellor William McRaven did not discipline Powers after that report.

Rep. Dan Flynn (R – TX House District 2), who was a co-chair of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations, released this joint statement after the grand jury report on behalf of himself and fellow co-chair Rep. Carol Alvarado (D – TX House District 145):

The grand jury report that came out this morning demonstrates why our committee needed to investigate Regent Hall and his behavior. Taxpayers expect their elected representatives to provide oversight of state agencies and executive appointees. Such oversight is especially important when appointees abuse their office. With this investigation now complete and with an outstanding new chancellor and strong new regents in place, we are optimistic that the UT System is ready to move forward and focus on the needs of its students and our state.

Regent Hall released the following statement after the grand jury’s decision not to indict him was made public:

The campaign by Speaker Straus, Representative Flynn and Senator Seliger to criminalize my service as a Regent constitutes abuse of office.  Their use of the levers of political power to cover up wrongdoing by legislators should now be investigated, and those exposed for their abuses should be driven from office.

Texas Candidates for Governor Respond to School Finance Ruling

Any possible changes the Texas Legislature makes to the school finance system will happen under the watch of the next governor. 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott is the current attorney general. His office represents the state in school finance litigation. Officially, his office said he would defend this law in court, just as he would any other law passed by the Legislature.

Later Thursday, his campaign released this statement:

“Our obligation is to improve education for our children rather than just doubling down on an outdated education system constructed decades ago. In my campaign for governor, I have proposed substantial improvements for our schools that will do a better job of educating Texans while spending tax dollars wisely. My plan will make Texas top-ranked in the nation for education by returning genuine local control to school districts, ensuring all children are reading and doing math at grade level by third grade, and graduating more students from high school than ever before.”

Sen. Wendy Davis is also weighing in on today’s ruling. She has long criticized the Legislature’s decision to slash $5.4 billion in school spending in 2011. In a statement Thursday, she said:

“Today is a victory for our schools, for the future of our state and for the promise of opportunity that’s at the core of who we are as Texans. The reality is clear and indefensible: insiders like Greg Abbott haven’t been working for our schools; they’ve been actively working against them. Abbott has been in court for years, defending overcrowded classrooms, teacher layoffs and public-school closings, and today, Judge John Dietz ruled against him. This ruling underscores the crucial need to invest in education and reminds us of just how much our schools, teachers and students have had to sacrifice over the past three years just to get by.”

UT reacts to Supreme Court ruling in Michigan admissions policy case

The University of Texas is reviewing Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold a Michigan ban to use race as a factor in college admissions.

In a 6-2 ruling, the justices said voters had the right to change their state constitution to prohibit public colleges and universities from considering race as part of the admissions process. The decision reverses a lower court ruling.

Meantime, the University of Texas at Austin is awaiting a ruling from a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel over its own admissions policy. The Supreme Court ruled on the Fisher v. University of Texas case last summer and sent it back down to the appeals court to enable a look at UT’s admissions policy under a more narrow set of standards.

Prospective student Abigail Fisher sued the university after being denied admission. Fisher, who is white, claimed she was the victim of racial discrimination because other, non-white students with lower test scores were admitted.

Reacting to Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling regarding the Michigan case, UT President Bill Powers said that based on its preliminary review, the university does not believe it has any effect on UT’s admissions policy or decisions.

Powers added:

“In today’s ruling, the court recognized that the Schuette case from Michigan was not ‘about the constitutionality, or the merits, of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education.’ The court also reaffirmed that in the case of Fisher versus the University of Texas, the court ‘did not disturb the principle that the consideration of race in admissions is permissible, provided that certain conditions are met.’ UT Austin’s admissions policy meets those conditions and we are awaiting a ruling from a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel. UT Austin uses race as one of many factors in our holistic review of applicants. Assembling a diverse student body is vital to the education of all students on campus and helps train the future leaders of our state and nation who will increasingly work in a diverse and global society.”

Capital Tonight: Public education chair talks frankly about school funding

Students starting high school for the first time next year will have a brand new slate of graduation options ahead of them. In the meantime, lawmakers are still wrestling with the complex process of implementing those changes, which were passed last legislative session.

In Wednesday’s Capital Tonight, we heard the concerns some lawmakers have about whether the pathways to graduation are too complicated for students and parents to navigate. Plus, we talked to the Public Education Committee Chair, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, about how counselors and increased funding will play a role in making the new law go more smoothly in the future.

BOND INFORMATION

Voters across Central Texas will have bond propositions to consider on the May ballot. But figuring out where exactly the money goes and how it affects local debt can by a tricky task. State Comptroller Susan Combs joined us in-studio next to talk about her office’s efforts to increase transparency with a helpful new website.

DEADLINE DELAY

The Obama administration is giving people more time to sign up for health insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act. The deadline to sign up was slated for March 31st, but The White House had hinted last week an extension was in the works. We spoke to enrollment experts in Austin to see how they’re dealing with the change.

Cigarroa steps down as UT System chancellor, says fight over Powers unrelated

The head of the University of Texas System formally announced he would end his five-year tenure to return to transplant surgery.

In a press conference Monday, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said he had accomplished everything he’d set out to do as chancellor, and that it always had been his intention to return to medicine full-time. Cigarroa has accepted a job as head of pediatric transplant surgery at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Cigarroa touted his accomplishments as chancellor, including the establishment of two new medical schools: the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the Dell School of Medicine at UT Austin. He also cited his Framework for Advancing Excellence, which the UT Board of Regents adopted in 2011. The plan called for increased engineering education, expanded online learning and the Horizon Fund, which provides seed money for the commercialization of UT research.

The chancellor’s departure comes during a tumultuous time for the Board of Regents, UT Austin President Bill Powers and the Texas Legislature. In December, Cigarroa announced Powers would stay on as president, but cited strained tensions with the board. Meanwhile, a joint committee of lawmakers is investigating UT Regent Wallace Hall, who has been accused of a “witch hunt” against Powers. Cigarroa said the controversy surrounding the UT Austin president had nothing to do with his decision.

“I evaluate all presidents as I’ve always done, based on facts and performance,” Cigarroa said. “I support President Powers, and I will continue to evaluate presidents every day — not only President Powers but all 15.”

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who has been supportive of Powers, says she believes the decision has more to do with the fight over leadership than Cigarroa would admit.

“Although I am confident that he will deny any disharmony, I am equally confident that his decision was influenced by the continued negative circumstances at hand. His action personifies the harmful repercussions of the current attack on those who pursue excellence, protect the privacy of students and strive for true transparency for all,” Zaffirini said in a statement.

Cigarroa said he will remain as chancellor until his replacement is found, a process UT Board of Regents Chair Paul Foster says will likely to take 4-6 months. He will also continue to serve the board as an adviser for the UT Rio Grande Valley medical school.

 

Panel posts reviews of controversial CSCOPE lesson plans

A four-member panel created to re-evaluate a set of controversial lesson plans has posted its work online.

State Board of Education Chair Barbara Cargill created the panel, known as the CSCOPE Ad Hoc Committee, after growing concern from parents, educators and conservative bloggers that the CSCOPE lesson plans presented an anti-American and anti-Christian bias. The panel is made up of four SBOE members, along with 140 parents, teachers and other stakeholders chosen by all SBOE members, according to the review committee’s website.

CSCOPE was an online tool created by regional education service centers to help smaller school districts adhere to the state’s education guidelines. An effort in the legislature to kill the system actually moved it into the public domain, where any district can use it., but only after a thorough public review process. It’s now known as the TEKS Resource System.

 

Capital Tonight: Adding up changes to education law

Back to School

The state’s school finance problems were back before a court Wednesday, this time over changes both sides agree need to be included as evidence.

That evidence includes the $3.4 billion in funding restored this session, on top of numerous changes to testing and graduation requirements. District Judge John Dietz has set a new date to take state lawmakers’ changes into account. In Wednesday’s episode, we looked at what to expect from the trial.

Abortion Bills

Abortion law in Texas could be changed drastically if a new Senate bill makes it to the governor’s desk. We spoke to Whole Woman’s Health, a licensed abortion clinic in Austin, to find out what the changes mean.

Immigration Backtrack

Plus, a key player on immigration reform in Washington says he’s thinking of backing out.

Click the image below to see why Congressman John Carter says he has serious concerns with an immigration reform bill he helped draft.

Judge sets date for new school finance trial

The judge in the state’s school finance case has set a date to hear new evidence, based on changes the lawmakers made to education funding this legislative session.

In February, State District Judge John Dietz ruled that the way the state finances schools was unconstitutional. It was based on massive education funding cuts and stricter graduation requirements passed in 2011. Dietz also found disparities between property rich school districts and property poor districts.

The state asked the court to reopen the case based on laws passed during the current legislative session. Lawmakers elected to restore $3.4 billion in education funding and also reduced the number of standardized tests necessary for students to graduate. Lawmakers also passed a bill that creates a vocational path to graduation.

The more than 600 districts that sued in 2011 maintain the entire school funding formula is flawed and that the additional funding won’t fix the basic problem.

Dietz said Wednesday the case will go back to trial on Jan. 6th. He has scheduled six weeks of testimony to hear what the new funding means.