The scholar and the spurned privatizer

Robert Kimball is being sued by a private education firm, over his study of “Barriers Facing Lati­nos and the Poor in Texas Public Schools”
Robert Kimball is being sued by a private education firm, over his study of “Barriers Facing Lati­nos and the Poor in Texas Public Schools” (Courtesy of Robert Kimball)

Six months ago, Austin Independent School District staff made a proposal to the district's board of trustees that it con­sider bringing in a private firm, Community Education Partners, to run an alternative education center for underachieving kids. The board said thanks, but no thanks. Now CEP is suing the author of an academic paper, claiming he's the reason the deal ­collapsed.

The paper was a report titled, "The Equal Treatment of Unequals: Barriers Facing Lati­nos and the Poor in Texas Public Schools." Co-authored by retired University of Houston at Clear Lake faculty member Robert Kimball and Texas Southern University law professor Lupe Salinas, it was published in spring 2007 volume of the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy. A former high school dropout himself, Kimball went on to become an assistant principal in Houston ISD; as part of this paper, he questions the efficacy of that district's CEP-run facilities. Kimball said, "In 40 pages, I only mention CEP on a page and a half."

Kimball has been a long-time critic of CEP, but in May 2008 the firm struck back, suing him for tortious interference, slander, and disparagement. CEP claims that many contentions in his paper were not backed by the data and that it was interfering with the company's business in several states. (This is not his first academic controversy: In 2003, he was the whistleblower who debunked the "Texas miracle" by which HISD had massaged dropout figures to enhance the academic rankings of district schools.) On Aug. 13 of this year, after Kimball's lawyers had asked that the case be dismissed, CEP's Chief Executive Officer Randle Rich­ardson filed an affidavit in Harris County's 234th District Court. In it, he claimed that CEP had been negotiating with AISD for a contract to deal with 648 of the district's most high-need and low-achieving students. Richard­son wrote, "Austin ISD ultimately decided not to negotiate with CEP as a result of published allegations by Kimball and the resulting negative press coverage." CEP said it had lost a $25 million contract and therefore was suing Kim­ball for $4.7 million in lost potential profits. Kimball explained, "The judge was ready to approve a summary judgment, but then all of a sudden, they brought up this Austin thing."

While CEP blames Kimball for the lost contract, that's not how two AISD trustees remember it or what the video of the meeting reflects.

Back on Sept. 29, 2008, district staff issued a request for proposals from private firms to run an academic intervention and dropout recovery program for the district. CEP was one of three possible partners in discussions after the release of the request and the only one to submit a full-fledged proposal. As the video of the March 30 board meeting reflects, Associate Super­in­tendents Bergeron Harris and Glenn Nolly discussed outlines for either an in-house solution or bringing in an external provider. Before the PowerPoint slides were even loaded, board President Mark Williams told trustees this was just to "give the board a little background ... about what problem we are trying to solve." As for any contract negotiations, then-Superintendent Pat Forgione said, "There's no commitment here."

No one doubted the scale of the problem: Among AISD students entering high school in 2004, about 1,400 – about 28% of the graduating class – failed to graduate in four years. The response from board members was simple: These are AISD kids, and AISD should solve the problem with systemwide reforms. Trustee Karen Dulaney Smith called the idea of bringing in a for-profit firm "anathema" to her philosophy of public education. Board Vice President Vince Torres argued that shuffling children off to an alternative learning center was just "buying some time," while trustee Robert Schneid­er compared the plan to the district's rejection a decade ago of proposals to hand the lowest performing schools to private entities. He said, "The response that was given then, as I am thinking right now is the appropriate response, is that we have the resources within the district to do it."

During the two-hour discussion, CEP's suitability was barely mentioned, because board members regarded the proposal as moot. There was clear frustration that staff, knowing the board's antipathy toward privatizing facilities, had brought this proposal forward at all, instead of something that could be implemented immediately and districtwide. No contract terms were discussed because, as far as the board was concerned, there was no contract to discuss. Recalling the decision, Williams said, "We wanted more research done from the staff's viewpoint of what options and choices are available to us – not just a third-party provider."

Schneider's recollection is the same, and he said that the board's calendar committee had originally tried to kill, and then finally downgrade, the presentation because "the board is uncomfortable with using public money to fund charters or private education." As for the idea that Kimball's paper played a role, the two trustees' response is simple: What paper? It was never mentioned in the March 30 meeting. When asked if it figured in backroom discussions, Schneider said that while he could not speak for the entirety of the rest of the board, "I never heard anything about that." While the board was given what he described as "a mixture of paper-type reviews," Kimball's article "was certainly nothing that was cited."

CEP and its attorneys declined to comment because of the pending litigation.

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