This past week, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath made his first on-site visit to Houston Independent School District (HISD) campuses since declaring a state takeover almost a year ago. On Tuesday, Feb. 6, Morath toured Kashmere High School, one of the initial schools moved into state-installed Superintendent Mike Miles’ “New Education System (NES).”
“I, of course, have visited Houston schools many times over the years, and what you can see is really a night-and-day difference in terms of the degree to which students are engaged in rigorous academic discussions,” Morath said, addressing the media after his visit.
Morath expressed admiration for the NES reform program, a significant shift from HISD’s decentralized approach. Under the NES, the 85 participating campuses must adhere to a district-approved model of instruction and centrally created curriculum — curriculum that has demonstrated a critical lack of judgment and expertise on several occasions.
Notably, three days after Morath’s visit, Miles announced another 19 campuses would move into the NES model, bringing the total number of NES campuses to 130, just under half of all HISD campuses.
In removing HISD’s democratically elected school board and installing a hand-picked superintendent and board of managers, Morath and TEA’s stated goal is to improve student test scores, with ambitious targets set by these state-appointed administrators to cut the gap between scores of Black and Latino students and their white peers by nearly half over the next five years.
Whether these “reforms” will succeed is anyone’s guess, particularly at a time in which the state has neglected to increase funding for public school districts. In the meantime, Miles’ changes have not been without their challenges.
Increased teacher turnover, mixed student sentiments, and parental pushback in some communities underscore the complexities of implementing such sweeping changes, particularly against the will of voters. A major point of contention for educators, parents, and students remains the centralized curriculum and staffing models. But other changes, like the removal of librarians from NES campuses, have sparked ire within the community, too.
During his first visit since the takeover, Morath, appointed to his position by Gov. Greg Abbott, outlined the path for the HISD community to regain democratic control of its public school system:
- HISD must meet state standards for student scores on standardized tests. It’s worth noting that the district had made progress in this effort prior to the takeover, with just nine campuses failing to meet standards in the 2021-2022 school year. More than 40 had done so in the 2018-2019 school year.
- HISD must enhance compliance in special education, something the state of Texas and Adding insult to the injury of state underfunding, Texas school districts received word in December they would lose $300 million in federal funding for special education because of a dispute between the state and federal governments. Near the top of list of districts most hurt by these cuts: Houston ISD.
- HISD must adopt a governance approach approved by TEA, which had been done already. HISD’s elected school board used the Lone Star Governance model before its members were removed from office.
Morath emphasized TEA is committed to returning control to elected trustees as swiftly as possible, but given the dubiousness of TEA’s exit criteria, it’s difficult to say when the state will be satisfied issues have been effectively addressed.
As the HISD community grapples with these disruptive changes, the narrative painted by Morath’s visit contrasts with the lived experiences of teachers, parents, and students.
“I’m not impressed at all,” said Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, after Morath’s visit. “I think this was another way for Mr. Miles and Commissioner Morath to spew propaganda about these NES schools.”