In a 31-0 vote this afternoon, the Texas Senate voted to invest the Texas Education Agency (TEA) with broad new investigative powers.
Filed by Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), Senate Bill 933 creates an Office of Inspector General (OIG) within TEA. The new OIG would be tasked with investigating allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse, not only within the TEA, but also in “school districts, charter schools, regional education service centers, and other entities.”
Under SB 933, the education commissioner would be required to appoint an inspector general, and the TEA would provide staff, resources, and support services for the new office. The OIG would have subpoena powers and the authority to refer matters and provide evidence to administrative and prosecutorial agencies.
Stories regarding waste, fraud, and abuse in public education have abounded for years. Large urban districts like Dallas, Katy, and El Paso ISD have faced accusations ranging from criminal misuse of taxpayer funds to submitting fraudulent standardized test scores.
Several districts have struggled with fraud allegations related to outside vendors. In 2017, the Houston ISD school board president admitted to ousting an auditor who had reported contracting irregularities to the FBI. During the last legislative session, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath testified that school contracting disputes have occasionally led to violence, possibly including the execution-style murder of school district employees.
With a significant portion of the state budget going to public education and the TEA monitoring approximately $60 billion in public funds, Senator Bettencourt insists that the TEA “needs the accountability that an Office of Inspector General will bring.”
Four other state agencies, Health and Human Services, the Department of Criminal Justice, the Juvenile Justice Department, and the Department of Public Safety, already employ an inspector general.
Without explicit authority from the state, the TEA has faced obstacles to uncovering fraud. During a Senate Education Committee hearing in March, TEA Deputy Commissioner for Governance A. J. Crabill noted that while the agency does currently look into allegations, “we are limited in our capacity to investigate.” Senator Bettencourt confirmed that both the Eanes and Klein school districts had resisted subpoenas due to the lack of explicit TEA authority.
During the same committee hearing, parent activist and attorney Jennifer Fleck testified on her work assisting parents with school district disputes. In one case, Fleck assisted a parent who had received a certified letter from the North East Independent School District attorney ordering her not to speak about the district’s sex education program at a local event. Fleck said that despite the possibility that the NEISD had violated state law, the parent had little recourse beyond continued dialogue with the district.
Only two individuals, including a legislative consultant for the Texas State Teachers Association, registered as against the bill but neither provided any testimony at the hearing.
The push for an inspector general for the state’s vast public education system is not a new idea; the Texas Senate unanimously passed a similar bill during the 2017 session, but the House did not bring the measure to the floor that year. Since the 2019 regular session must conclude on May 27, there is limited time for the House to consider the education OIG.
Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.