Supreme Court Clears Way for State Takeover of Houston ISD

Last week, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the Texas Education Agency and Commissioner of Education Mike Morath could potentially take control of the democratically elected Houston Independent School District Board of Trustees. HISD has been targeted for state takeover since 2019 due to alleged misconduct by trustees and poor accountability scores at Phillis Wheatley High School.

The district sued in 2020 and a Travis County district judge halted Morath’s plan by granting an injunction that was also upheld by an appeals court. In 2021, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1365, which adjusted the timeline for state takeover of districts labeled as “low-performing.”  

When discussing the legislative intent of SB 1365 on the House floor, bill author Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston) specifically stated in an exchange with Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) that SB 1365 would not affect the ongoing Houston case. Watch this important discussion here.  

However, when TEA took the case to the Texas Supreme Court, the agency argued that SB 1365 indeed would allow for the state to continue its takeover, and the court agreed. The Supreme Court ended the injunction, saying it isn’t appropriate under the new law — the one that wasn’t supposed to apply to this case. 

This decision could allow Morath to replace a democratically elected school board with new school board members of his choosing. The Texas Supreme Court also remanded the case back to a trial court, and Houston ISD’s lawyers have indicated they plan to return to trial court to get a new injunction under the new law.

The state’s ongoing attempt to take over HISD’s board is particularly questionable given the addition of newly elected board members since 2019 and continued improvement at Wheatley High School, which received a passing grade last year from TEA.

Education advocates told The Texas Tribune that they know a state takeover would harm the district and would cause disruption for the students. 

“I hope that the district will pursue whatever avenue it has so that we can keep our democratically elected board,” said Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.

 Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of education advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education (CVPE), noted that state takeovers are disproportionately used against school districts with a significant population of students of color and often worsen school experiences. CVPE also added that TEA’s potential takeover would be “the first in the country based only on test scores.” 

The timing of the Texas Supreme Court decision is noteworthy because the Texas Legislature is in session right now and has the opportunity to make this right, keeping its word to Houston voters. We urge the Legislature to do everything it can to keep our public schools public.