Texas Education Agency announces takeover of the Houston Independent School District

The state-appointed managers will hold immense power. They can control the budget, school closures, collaborations with charter networks, policies around curriculum and library books, as well as hiring or firing the superintendent, among other important decisions.

By Dominic Anthony Walsh, Houston Public MediaMarch 15, 2023 10:50 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

The Texas Education Agency announced Wednesday morning plans to install state-appointed managers in place of the Houston Independent School District’s elected school board. Over the past week, local and state lawmakers warned that a takeover was imminent.

“This action places a board of Houstonians — who have a firm belief that all children can learn and can achieve at high levels when properly supported — this action places that kind of board in charge of the district,” Education Commissioner Mike Morath told Houston Public Media. “I think it’s actually important for families to know that this decision is not a reflection of the incredible students in Houston ISD, nor is it a reflection of the hard working teachers and staff of Houston ISD. There are many students in Houston that are truly flourishing, but there are also a large number of students in Houston who have not been given the supports necessary to succeed.”

Morath described Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II as “a student-focused man of integrity,” but said he will also be replaced.

The state-appointed managers will hold immense power. They can control the budget, school closures, collaborations with charter networks, policies around curriculum and library books, as well as hiring or firing the superintendent, among other important decisions.

The court battle and legislative intervention

TEA first tried to seize control of Houston ISD in 2019. The agency pointed to Wheatley High School — which failed to meet state standards — as well as dysfunctional district leadership. The move was held up by litigation until the Supreme Court of Texas ruled in TEA’s favor in January while allowing the case to continue in a lower court. On Thursday, the Houston ISD school board voted 8-1 to drop the lawsuit “in order to end further expenditure of district resources, as there are no further legal recourses.”

Democratic State Representative Harold Dutton took credit for the idea of a takeover, which has been opposed by many other members of his party. The idea became state law in 2015.

Changes in Houston ISD leadership — and in the law that allows these types of takeovers — added complexity to the case. Republican State Senator Paul Bettencourt was a primary proponent of the changes to state law in 2021, which he argued made it easier for TEA to intervene “when a school system fails.”

Bettencourt tweeted his approval of the all-Republican Texas supreme court’s decision.

In court, TEA asserted that Houston ISD’s former board members engaged in unethical, illegal behavior — like making important decisions behind closed doors. The agency also pointed to public racial tension between Black and Latino board members. But the takeover was primarily justified by years of low standardized test scores and post-graduate performance at Wheatley High School, one of the district’s 280 campuses in 2019.

Wheatley received a passing accountability rating from TEA after the first takeover attempt, and Houston ISD received a solid B rating from the agency last school year.

TEA argued those factors were irrelevant.

“The commissioner’s view is that, ‘Yes, HISD is a large school district, and what that means is you have some very wealthy, very high-performing schools up here that are doing great, but you also have schools like Wheatley and Kashmere that struggle year after year,’” state assistant solicitor general Kyle Highful told Texas supreme court justices in October. “And if you’re a student at one of these low-performing schools, it doesn’t help you to know that elsewhere in the district there’s a school that’s doing great. And the commissioner believes that every student should have access to a quality education.”

A different district

Opponents of the takeover argue Houston ISD has made immense progress since the 2018-19 school year.

In less than 4 years, the majority of the school board trustees lost election or left office, the district hired a new superintendent, and Wheatley received a passing accountability rating.

Houston ISD trustee Judith Cruz won election in 2019 the day before the takeover push was announced.

“The current board is a different board than the one that began in the lawsuit,” HISD board president Cruz wrote in October, when the Supreme Court of Texas heard oral arguments in the case.

Conservative Bridget Wade unseated trustee Anne Sung in 2021, two years into the legal battle over the takeover. Wade ran for office partially because of the dysfunction that prompted TEA’s attempt to replace the board in 2019.

“I think they didn’t have a choice at the time,” she said in October. “I think it’s maybe time for us to be able to prove ourselves without the oversight of the TEA. But again, I’ll leave that to the courts to decide.”

The court sided with TEA, but did not mandate that the agency actually move forward with the takeover. A TEA spokesperson previously said the agency had at least three options: close Wheatley, appoint a conservator or install a board of managers.

Education Commissioner Morath asserted that his options are more constrained by state law.

“There have been arguments made by some about what that law says or doesn’t say, but our reading of the law is quite clear,” he said. “There’s a host of statutes and rules that guide this specific action.”

‘Starting from behind means you have to catch up’

Tommy Villalva was the Wheatley High School valedictorian in the 2018-19 school year before TEA launched its takeover attempt. He graduated from the University of Houston and is now managing a restaurant. He plans to attend law school.

In Villalva’s final year at Wheatley, the school served 460 African American students, 403 Hispanic students, 3 Asian students and 3 white students. 94% were classified as “economically disadvantaged.”

“Most minorities start from behind,” he said. “And starting from behind means you have to catch up. And you’re playing catch up for so long that eventually your status quo catches up to you.”

The school’s special ed population was also significantly higher than district and statewide averages. More than 20% of the students at Wheatley were in special education, compared to 7% across the district and 10% across the state. The bulk of the school’s 179 students in special ed were included in the state’s accountability rating.

Community advocate and educator Ruth Kravitz is with Community Voices for Public Education, which opposes the takeover.

“Almost half of the kids in the school are coming to the table with a more complicated set of experiences than people whose parents have tutors at home and printers at home and all those other things,” she said. “Great work can be done in the classroom, but it’s not going to manifest on these arbitrary tests with the arbitrary rating system that implies that learning is happening here and not happening over there.”

Opponents of the takeover argue that the state needs to spend more money on public schools instead of enforcing strict accountability standards.

“Sometimes the facts get lost in people’s preferred narratives,” Morath responded.

For him, Houston ISD is an example of misallocated resources.

“Education is the great equalizer,” he said. “We live in this country that was founded on ideals that speak to the highest ideals of man — all men are created equal, they were endowed with certain rights, the right to pursue happiness. And in many cases, our schools are the institutions that we said, ‘This is the thing that is going to deliver on those rights, it’s going to equip everybody for the American Dream.’

“We have got to make that true for kids,” he continued. “Whether they’re in Wheatley, or in any other school in Houston or anywhere in the state.”

The history of racial segregation and political disempowerment

Wheatley opened as a “Colored” school in 1927, after years of Black community members demanding better schooling facilities for their children. But the policymakers who gave into those demands had an ulterior motive: to create racially segregated residential patterns across the Houston area.

In her research, historian Karen Benjamin found that white schools and greater resources flowed to West Houston, while Black schools were placed in South and Northeast Houston, including Wheatley in Fifth Ward. All the while, schools in relatively integrated areas that didn’t fit into the racial zoning plan were shuttered or denied adequate resources.

The plan worked, and the scars of segregation endure.

“It is really hard to dismantle that because residential segregation gets baked in,” Benjamin said.

Schools were the primary tool of segregation, along with hospitals and other public services. Economic and industrial patterns followed, with business development flowing to the west and polluting plants opening in the east.

Houston was built on that foundation.

“The evidence is just so overwhelming,” Benjamin said.

“Human beings are flawed creatures, and we have every sin imaginable that befalls us,” Morath told Houston Public Media. “And it requires us to take intentional actions to learn from one another to love thy neighbor, to assume good intentions when we otherwise wouldn’t, and to listen from other people’s lived experiences. It’s been important for me as we had been engaged in this intervention in Houston for quite some time to learn and listen from people who grew up in that part of Houston, that lived those experiences, and it’s by learning constantly from those conversations, from the lived experience of others.”

Houston ISD has tried to alleviate some of the disparities through “weighted-student” funding strategies that send additional dollars to schools with “student populations that need more educational resources including those classified as at-risk, economically disadvantaged, or bilingual, and those enrolled in special education, gifted and talented, and career and technology programs.”

Opponents argue the takeover is more about power than student performance.

Democratic State Representative Ron Reynolds supported legislation that would stave off a takeover, although he acknowledged the bills were almost certainly doomed to die in the Republican-controlled legislature.

“I think this is less about education, more about a power grab,” he said. “I think this is the TEA saying that ‘We don’t believe that these urban areas are ran effectively,’ and that they can do a better job.”

Political scientist Domingo Morel is the author of Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy, which examined more than 100 similar situations across the country.

The book’s central argument: state takeovers of school districts rarely improve academic or financial situations, but often undercut the hard-won political power of marginalized groups in urban areas.

“People of color represent the majority in the state of Texas … but at the state legislative level, they’re in the minority,” he said. “And so the way to create political power across the state is through the cities — Houston, San Antonio, Dallas … Because the schools are such an important part of the political power at the city level, when you take away the schools, you take away the power to the city as well. And then you start to really curtail that community’s power — not only at the city level, but then eventually at the state level.”

Morath said the takeover is not about power.

“This is solely about students,” said. “What must be true for kids in Houston — all kids in Houston, not just some kids in Houston — is they have got to be provided the resource environment that supports the structures that allow them to flourish, that allow them to succeed.”

Board members and a spokesperson for Houston ISD did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

This story will be updated. Check back here for reactions from Houston ISD leadership.

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