“Outrage” over Texas plan to take over Houston’s independent school district: “This is a dark day”

"Politically motivated" takeover will "worsen inequities and disenfranchise Houston voters," critics say

Published March 16, 2023 11:30AM (EDT)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

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After a prolonged legal battle and weeks of speculation, the Texas Education Agency on Wednesday confirmed it's removing Houston Independent School District's democratically elected school board and superintendent, effectively putting the state in charge of its largest school district.

Houston ISD, with 276 schools and an enrollment of nearly 200,000 students, will now be the largest district the agency has taken over since 2000, when it first intervened in a struggling school district.

Superintendent Millard House II and the current school board will finish out the school year, but the TEA will replace them after June 1 with "a board of managers."

The TEA commissioner decides how long the board is in place. Usually, this sort of takeover has lasted two to six years.

The agency will host community meetings in the coming weeks to explain how the takeover will take place.

The move is in response to years of poor academic outcomes at a single campus in the district, Phillis Wheatley High School, and allegations of misconduct from school board members. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said state law requires his agency to either close that campus or appoint a new board to oversee the district.

Texas passed a law in 2015 mandating a state takeover if a school district or one of its campuses receives failing grades from the TEA for five consecutive years. Phillis Wheatley reached that threshold in 2019.

Morath and the agency moved to force out the district's school board that same year. The district pushed back and sued, but the Texas Supreme Court ruled in January that the agency could move forward with its plan to take over the district.

"Even with a delay of three full years caused by legal proceedings, systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact students most in need of our collective support," Morath wrote in a letter to district leaders Wednesday.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Morath said that "for parents whose students are not being served as well as they should, this intervention is designed to try to improve that situation and do it as quickly as possible."

The far-reaching decision has put the agency in the spotlight, with supporters saying the state needed to fix the district's entrenched problems and opponents noting that Houston ISD has made improvements in the years since the lawsuit against TEA started.

The TEA, which grades schools and districts each year based on their academic achievement, gave Phillis Wheatley a grade of F in 2019. Last year, Phillis Wheatley got a C, and Houston ISD as a whole received a B. In the last 19 months, HISD has made strides reducing the number of its campuses with a D or F rating from 50 to 10. Ninety-four percent of HISD schools now earn a grade of A, B or C.

While student scores have improved, Morath said that doesn't change the fact that the school received failing grades in its accountability rating for five consecutive years — enough to require the agency to intervene.

"There are still systemic challenges in Houston," he said. "We are still required to act and so we are acting."

Nyla McCullum, a graduating senior at Phillis Wheatley, said the takeover is a big disappointment for everyone who's worked to get the high school in better standing with the state.

"The test scores have risen, but they're still trying to take over after we have worked so hard to accomplish that," McCullum said.

House, the current superintendent, said the TEA's decision should not discount gains the district has made since he took the job in 2021.

"As we wrap up this school year, my focus will be on working with our Board of Trustees and the TEA to ensure a smooth transition without disruption to our core mission of providing an exceptional educational experience for all students."

At least one school board member said Wednesday he was on board with the TEA's decision.

"Mike Morath, to me, is like the exterminator," Kendall Baker, a Houston ISD board member, told KHOU on Wednesday. "He's coming to clean the house."

While House will be replaced, the agency said it would like him to stay to consult for the new superintendent, unless House has a new job lined up.

Documents first reported by the Tribune on Tuesday night show the agency is ready to appoint new leaders. Before taking down the documents from its website, the agency posted job applications for the new board of managers and a slideshow with details of the body's responsibilities. They will be unpaid positions, just like elected school boards.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in an interview that the agency has already selected a superintendent but did not name them.

The TEA has taken over 15 school districts in its history. It still manages Marlin ISD, outside of Waco, and Shepherd ISD, east of Conroe. The agency gave back control of eight districts to their local school boards; in other instances, it has shut them down or annexed them to other districts.

Chloe Sikes, deputy director of policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association, said research shows that school takeovers are not effective in increasing student achievement. Instead, there is an increase in teacher turnover and lack of communication between the community and an appointed board.

"In some cases, it's led to greater turnover and turmoil in the district," Sikes said.

Morath disagreed. He said in Texas, board of managers have worked with school districts to improve their accountability ratings.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, said the agency is gambling with the livelihood and education of hundreds of thousands of kids.

"We have way bigger issues weighing on our state that could use the governor's immediate attention," Johnson said.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, said Morath met with the Houston delegation Wednesday morning to explain the takeover process.

"We're outraged," Reynolds said. "This is a dark day for HISD."

Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said the teachers union opposes the state replacing the democratically elected board.

"We will work night and day to make sure that students have access to specific programs and services that they need and deserve to receive a high-quality public education in Houston schools," she said.

Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of the Community Voices for Public Education, a local education advocacy group, said the commissioner should have been congratulating Houston ISD for its recent academic improvement instead of punishing it.

"The takeover of the largest school district in Texas is a politically motivated, irresponsible experiment that will worsen inequities and disenfranchise Houston voters," she said.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, on the other hand, said the Houston ISD board failed to raise students' scores and fully supports the TEA's actions.

"Commissioner Morath made the right decision by choosing to install a Board of Managers for the future of the students, families, and staff of HISD," he said.

Harris County GOP Chair Cindy Siegel said the state takeover is an unfortunate situation, but Houston ISD must face consequences for its years of failing grades.

"We have to draw the line somewhere; today, the TEA drew that line," Siegel said. "Students must come first, and the TEA stepping in is an important first step to getting the largest school district in Texas back on track."

Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday he hopes the takeover means that problems within the Houston ISD school board and district are fixed.

"All of us Texans have an obligation and should come together to reinvent HISD in a way that will ensure that we'll be providing the best quality education for those kids," he said.

In an editorial published this week in the Houston Chronicle, state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, a Phillis Wheatley alumnus who co-authored the 2015 legislation that ultimately allowed the TEA to take over Houston ISD, defended the law.

"When a student fails once, there are consequences. When a district fails at least five consecutive times, there should also be consequences," he wrote. "HISD has failed."

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/03/15/texas-education-houston-isd-takeover/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

By Brian Lopez

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