U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke on Wednesday called for the investigations into violations of federal education law to be expanded to all El Paso Independent School District campuses and other school districts in El Paso County.
O'Rourke, D-El Paso, in a letter to the Department of Education urged the department to work with the Texas Education Agency and the EPISD to locate students denied an education under an extensive cheating scandal and offer them a chance to re-enroll and finish school.
The letter was in response to an audit report released Friday by the Department of Education's Office of Inspector General that found problems at two EPISD high schools.
The audit, which targeted Bowie High School, was done after allegations of cheating in the EPISD were made by former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh. The audit looked at Bowie and Coronado High School, a "control" school chosen because of its superior academic record, and found evidence that student records were improperly manipulated at both campuses.
"The audit findings point to systemic violation of federal law under the (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) and students' civil rights within EPISD," O'Rourke wrote in seeking an expanded investigation.
The audit report confirmed earlier findings by the FBI and the El Paso Times that EPISD officials rigged federal and state accountability measures by pushing struggling students out of schools, changing grades, improperly retaining some students in ninth grade and promoting others from ninth to 11th grade -- all with the intent of preventing academically struggling students from taking the 10th-grade standardized test which is used to determine federal Adequate Yearly Progress ratings for campuses and school districts.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General made several recommendations in the report, including requirements that TEA direct the school district to add oversight mechanisms and internal controls to deal with the problems found in the audit. The report also recommended that TEA reconsider AYP results at the district from 2009 to 2012.
Another recommendation directed the department's Office of Civil Rights to look into violations of students' civil rights through discrimination or denial of a public education.
"I request your office act swiftly to fully implement the recommendations made by the OIG and take all necessary steps to provide recourse to the students impacted and insure that similarly-situated students at other school districts within El Paso County have not had their civil rights violated," O'Rourke wrote.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education did not immediately respond to questions about his letter.
O'Rourke's office also sent the TEA a copy of the letter Wednesday but a spokeswoman, DeEtta Culbertson, said the agency had yet to receive it.
After the audit was released last week, EPISD officials said the district was already implementing significant changes to resolve the problems identified in the report.
In response to O'Rourke's letter, EPISD Board of Managers President Dee Margo said internal audit reports as well as the Weaver audit commissioned by the district have already provided significant documentation of failings, which the board and administration are working quickly to address.
He said the district has also made progress in identifying students affected by the cheating through its Alpha Initiative and that legislation passed by El Paso state lawmakers dealt further with the issue.
"We're moving ahead," he said. "Does another DOE audit help any? I don't know that it hurts, but I'm not sure that it helps, either."
O'Rourke specifically mentioned Canutillo Independent School District for investigation of civil rights violations because former Superintendent Damon Murphy was implicated in the EPISD cheating scheme as an administrator at that district.
In a letter to the Department of Education last month, Canutillo board President Armando Rodriguez asked that any federal review include school districts across the state, rather than treat the cheating issue as isolated to El Paso County. While he said he isn't opposed to the additional investigations sought by O'Rourke, he said an audit should not be limited to local school districts.
"Ever since the beginning we've talked about this not just being a county issue, it's a statewide issue," Rodriguez said.
O'Rourke spokeswoman Mattie Muñoz said the letter did not seek a statewide investigation because the congressman's office did not believe he had the authority to expand the investigation beyond his constituency.
While the Socorro Independent School District does not believe any systemic cheating occurred, district spokesman Daniel Escobar said its leaders are open to the expanded review as called for by O'Rourke.
"If there's an opportunity to review our practices, we're constantly looking for ways to review what we do," he said.
Five districts in the county have opened or have had internal investigations into potential cheating. Ysleta Independent School District most recently sought an internal audit into possible manipulation of student transfer credits in April. The Canutillo, El Paso, San Elizario and Socorro school districts also have had investigations or are in the process of an audit.
Andrew Kreighbaum may be reached at andrew@elpasotimes.com; 546-6127. Follow him on Twitter @kreighbaum