Texas AFT president outlines why state takeovers of school districts are bound to fail our kids

Then Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo holds a press conference last spring urging local control for our schools.

For more than a year, the possibility of the state taking over Houston ISD—one of the biggest school systems in the nation—has loomed over the district and its students and parents. The district could face this sanction because of a state law that mandates closure of campuses or the appointment of a board of managers to replace the locally-elected School Board if even just one campus receives a failing accountability rating for five years.

Currently, four campuses are in danger of triggering sanctions. (We won’t know until mid August if they meet accountability ratings, but initial indications are that some won’t.) To put that in perspective, Houston ISD has 280 campuses, serving a population of 210,000 students, with 75% of them “economically disadvantaged.” Other dynamics, including an investigation of board governance by TEA and the appointment of a state monitor for the district, hint that a takeover might be coming.

Houston is also where we have the largest number of members with the Houston Federation of Teachers, and where our newly-elected Texas AFT President Zeph Capo formerly was president. Capo co-authored an op-ed in today’s Houston Chronicle on why a state takeover is the wrong move, how the A-F accountability ratings are unfair and inaccurate, and how removing elected officials to install state-appointed trustees makes a “mockery of democracy.” We reprint it in full below.

School takeovers fail. Is Houston next?

The Texas Education Agency should heed evidence from around the country that state takeovers of schools harm students and communities. The public needs to know that the rules for assessing school performance, and rating them by letter grade, are capricious and biased, and are archetypal examples of grandfathering at their worst.

In recent months, failed state takeovers have been in the news around the country. In Tennessee, a state takeover district created to turn around lowest-performing schools has not led to student achievement improvements during any of the district’s first six years, Chalkbeat reported last week. In a brief released by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, researchers wrote that, according to their study, “turnaround efforts which rely on restaffing schools with more effective educators may not be sustainable after multiple years, which raises the possibility that there is a limited supply of teachers who are willing to transfer to low-performing schools.”

In Ohio in mid-July, the governor signed a one-year moratorium of state takeovers that were based on standardized test scores. There seems to be broad agreement to get rid of the system, which places districts under state control after three annual “F” grades in a row, the Columbus Dispatch reported. Republican State Rep. Don Jones, a former teacher, stressed that any new system needs to let locally elected leaders make the local decisions.

Takeovers remove local control, make a mockery of democracy, disproportionately harm Hispanic and African American communities and leave districts worse off. Takeovers can also last years longer than people expect.

In 2001, the state took over Philadelphia. Seventeen years later, the district regained local control. But none of the promises had been fulfilled: Academics had barely improved, there had been mass school closures, buildings were still in need of extensive repairs, and classes were larger than the state average. This pattern of takeover and dismantling of public education has occurred around the country—in cities including Detroit and New Orleans.

If the state takes over the Houston Independent School District, Philadelphia should be a warning to us.

Rather than removing local control through state takeover, public schools need more resources and wraparound services, more after-school programs and fine arts, more culturally relevant curriculum and smaller class sizes. This is what rich families demand for their kids, and it should be the model for all children.

Instead, in state after state, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has peddled A-F school report card legislation based almost entirely on standardized test scores. These A-F ratings irrevocably harm children, schools and communities.

When accountability results came in last year, the Chronicle reported that some education leaders said using A-through-F letter grades would unfairly punish campuses and districts that serve high rates of economically disadvantaged students and that the framework relies too heavily on standardized test performance. That is what is happening now.

On May 17 last year, when TEA announced the latest round of A-F school report card rule changes, these changes applied to seniors who were graduating just two weeks later. Many of those seniors had been flooded out of their homes during Hurricane Harvey—trauma that could definitely have affected their test performance.

More insidious is the “forced failure” rule change of May 2018. Though a school might be showing significant progress and have an overall passing grade, as figured on TEA’s progress calculator, if it has an F in three of the subcategories, the school is rated F overall.

We are hopeful that a new administrative rule, proposed by Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, would allow common sense to prevail by providing an “intervention pause”—meaning that TEA would not pursue additional interventions or sanctions but would instead allow the district to continue its targeted improvement plan.

Call the governor and elected officials. Ask them for our democracy and our children back.

Ruth Kravetz is co-founder of Community Voices for Public Education. Capo is president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

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