After a years-long quest, the Texas Education Agency has announced it intends to take control of Houston ISD, a district with a B rating from TEA itself, on June 1.
While Houston ISD’s current superintendent and democratically elected school board will remain in place for the rest of the semester, TEA will replace them after June 1 with an outside, appointed board of managers.
How long that board of managers remains in place — and, in fact, how it operates — is at the discretion of Education Commissioner Mike Morath, an appointed official himself.
The Houston Federation of Teachers and Houston Educational Support Personnel, the two AFT unions in HISD, held a press conference Wednesday afternoon denouncing the takeover alongside parents, students, community leaders, and congressional representatives.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a hostile takeover. The state did this without any transparency or making any effort to get input from Houston parents, educators, or other community members,” said Jackie Anderson, HFT president.. “Educators, parents, and the community remain resolutely opposed to this state-sponsored power grab to take over the Houston public schools.”
TEA has already posted the job application for its Houston ISD board of managers. It has also announced four community meetings this month in the district:
- 6:30 p.m., March 21: Westbury High School
- 6:30 p.m., March 22: Chavez High School
- 6:30 p.m., March 29: Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center
- 6:30 p.m., March 30: Kashmere High School
The History of TEA’s Takeover of Houston ISD
The genesis of this fight dates back to 2015 and the passage of HB 1842. An amendment to that bill, which Rep. Harold Dutton has crowed about in recent days, required a school board takeover or the closure of a school if a single campus earned five straight years of failing state accountability ratings.
In 2019, one Houston ISD school — Wheatley High School — fell into that category, and Morath began his attempt to take over the district. Houston ISD sued, and two courts upheld an injunction.
Since that time, a new school board has been elected and a new superintendent has been put in place, and, through community efforts and investment, Wheatley moved up to a C rating in 2022. Note that the criteria for these school ratings are also set by the appointed commissioner.
By every letter of the law, Houston ISD should be free from worries about TEA interference. But a bill passed in 2021, SB 1365, muddied the waters and gave Morath a new legal argument to present to the Texas Supreme Court.
Questions About TEA’s Leadership
Plenty of other states’ experiences have shown the dubious “success” of state takeovers. In Tennessee, 24 of the 27 schools taken over by the state are still listed in the bottom 5% of schools a decade later. Meanwhile, under state management, Detroit schools suffered from $610 million in wasteful spending and mismanagement.
TEA’s own previous takeovers, all districts significantly smaller than Houston, have little positive to show for them. Of the 15 previous state takeovers, the Houston Chronicle reports, four districts have closed entirely. TEA currently has control of two other districts: Marlin ISD and Shepherd ISD.
Of those 15 districts, it is notable that seven had predominantly Black student populations, and another seven had predominantly Hispanic student bodies. Shepherd ISD is the only district taken over by TEA to have a majority white student body. This follows a national trend among state takeovers.
Houston ISD, the eighth-largest school district in the nation, has 187,000 students, of which the vast majority are students of color.
Nor are those the only concerns about TEA’s ability to govern and the agency’s commitment to quality public education:
- Last year, we learned TEA gave its green light to James Dunn, previously convicted of defrauding the U.S. Department of Education, to train new school board members.
- As recently as 2021, the U.S. Department of Education found that TEA was out of compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, effectively denying students with disabilities the support and resources they are entitled to.
- Last month, meanwhile, a high-ranking TEA official was caught on audio encouraging a disgruntled parent to “stick it” to her child’s school district and advocating for voucher programs.
“If we applied the same criteria to state agencies as we do to public school districts, then shouldn’t TEA have already been taken over by the federal government for failure?” said Zeph Capo, president of Texas AFT.
How the Takeover Furthers the School Privatization Agenda
Despite what Gov. Greg Abbott might like to claim, it is impossible to separate what is happening in Houston ISD from the school voucher schemes he and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are pushing in the 88th Legislature.
“This is clearly a shameful power play to take away local control of local public schools and put in place charters and vouchers,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s unconscionable how this was done to Houston students, parents,
and educators, in a vacuum without community input and with no transparency.”
Usurping local control of local schools and local tax dollars is a common theme between the takeover of Houston ISD and proposed voucher programs. Our schools work best for students when they are fully supported and overseen by their communities. That will not be the case for Houston after June 1.
Abbott and other leaders cheering on the takeover like to say that Houston ISD “failed” students. In reality, the state of Texas has failed students by systemically underfunding public education. It is astonishing to watch state leaders decry public school student outcomes while continuing to fund public schools at the level of 39th in the nation.
It is likewise galling to watch those same leaders push a separate system of privately-run charter schools that further erode public education funding. From 2019-2022, Houston ISD lost more than $1 million in revenue to charter school transfers.
While the district has ended its legal fight against TEA’s plan, community members, educators, parents, and students have no plans to end their resistance.
The Texas Gulf Coast AFL-CIO has started an online letter campaign in opposition. You can send an e-letter to Morath, Gov. Greg Abbott’s hand-picked education commissioner, in under two minutes from your phone or computer.
Community Voices for Public Education, an organization of Houston parents and community members, also has an online petition, available in both English and Spanish.
In the Legislature, meanwhile, there are two bills that would amend the Education Code to make state takeovers an option for the education commissioner, not a requirement: