Unfunding a Mandate

By falling behind in reports on educating kids, Harris County may lose hundreds of thousands in state grants. Or more.

A kid gets expelled from school. Or he's been incarcerated for a crime, serves his term and can move back to his home school, except that it's a week before the TAAS tests and not a really good time to rejoin his class.

That's where Harris County's Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program comes in. By state decree a few years back, counties became responsible for educating kids removed from their regular public school. The state pays the counties about $60 a day for each student. In return, the county makes sure the kid goes to school and files regular reports on his progress.

Problem is, Harris County's program has not only fallen behind in its reporting but admits it will never be able to supply all the data it was supposed to give the state for the 2000-2001 school year because the kids are long gone. There's no way to get some of them back for that testing they were supposed to undergo.

Judge Eckels pledges all will be made right with the state.
Phillippe Deiderich
Judge Eckels pledges all will be made right with the state.

And because of that, on November 28 the state sent a letter to Margaret Rohde, administrator of the program, telling her that if she didn't get her house in order the state would take away not only all its JJAEP funding but other grant funds -- including those that go to the juvenile probation department operated by Elmer Bailey.

Rohde, while pledging this will never happen again, has a series of explanations about the missing data. She remains certain that she will be able to clear this up by January and save the funding. She's not worried.

Bailey, while disappointed and clearly uncomfortable, said he is confident that the state would never touch his funding. That wouldn't be fair, to punish his department for what another county department did, he said. He's not worried.

At least, Rohde said, the reporting is up to date this year. They've mastered the computer programs that were giving them trouble and know what they have to do. The testing process itself has been streamlined. Any mistakes made in the past are behind them.

But that's not the story the state was telling a week ago. Linda Brooke, director of education and related services for the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission in Austin, said Rohde's office was not current with its numbers this year, either.

"The counties are required to send the data every other month. In Harris County this is not happening," Brooke said.

That's why the state hasn't sent Harris County the $325,000 that it figures is the minimum needed to run its education program this year, Brooke said. That, and because as of mid-December, the probation commission and Harris County still didn't have a signed contract. Margaret Rohde wasn't aware the money was missing. Harris County Judge Robert Eckels wasn't aware the contract was missing, until asked to check on it by the Press.

And Brooke said she will, too, take away Elmer Bailey's money if she has to.

Not to be neurotic, but maybe a little worry here would be a good thing.

Usually no one gets a letter like the one Rohde received without some history leading up to it. According to Brooke, there is a lot of history.

"There were several times that this was discussed," Brooke said. Missing were the so-called risk/resiliency surveys, which are done by asking kids about behavioral and academic factors such as how they've been doing in school, possible gang involvement and drug use. Those tests are supposed to be done when a child first enters the JJAEP program and just before he exits.

Rohde said the test, now in its second year, surprised them in a number of ways. It was oral instead of written, which made it a one-on-one test instead of a group experience. Rohde said the first part of the test took 90 to 120 minutes to administer (the state's Brooke said 45 to 60 minutes max). And they had a lot of students to test.

This year, Rohde said, the pressure of the testing program has been eased somewhat. They have to test only the students staying at least 90 days. The test itself has also been shortened.

Last year, the county sent 336 of the 1,240 students in the JJAEP program to the private Community Education Partners for their education. The rest went to the Brown Schools, also in the business of providing alternative education. Rohde admits that the schools did not collect all the data they should have. Sometimes, she said, they would lose the chance for an exit test because a kid would get arrested over the weekend and never return.

Yet a December 11 report by Rohde to Brooke shows that of the 1,240 students, only 212 received both tests, which means either our jails were bulging with kids or there were some other factors at work here. The vast majority of the students -- 761 -- received neither test. And even though Rohde has said the test was really designed to measure progress of students who are in their care 90 or more days, only 15 percent of that number (31 students) took both tests.

Had the new rules been in place last year, Rohde said, 91 percent of the kids would not have had to be tested. Some who missed the entry test had already taken a similar state-approved test while incarcerated, before they were students.

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