The Texas Education Agency announced Wednesday it will appoint a new superintendent and a board of managers to take over the state’s largest school district in Houston after a long and slogging legal battle over the state’s proposed intervention after schools failed to meet state standards for years.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been on a tour around Texas advocating for parental control and use of public money for private school vouchers. He said Wednesday that the Houston Independent School District’s academic issues are deep-rooted and systemic, and the takeover is unrelated to the school voucher push.
“There has been a longtime failure by HISD, and the victims of that failure are the students,” he said.
Democratic lawmakers worry the takeover could have implications for other Texas school districts, especially those in large urban areas. And some cast it as part of a push by conservative Republicans to remake education across the country.
“It’s a national movement,” said state Rep. Alma Allen, a Democrat who represents a swath of southern Houston and is vice chairwoman of the House Public Education committee. “The Republicans are planning to take over education in the United States.”
In a letter sent Wednesday to the Houston district, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath noted he would name new managers for the district starting June 1.
Morath commended the existing Houston school board for trying to make progress and noted the district does operate some of the highest performing schools in the state.
“But prior academic performance issues continue to require action under state law,” Morath said. “Even with a delay of three full years caused by legal proceedings, systemic problems across Houston ISD continue to impact students most in need of collective support.”
Since 2019, the district has decreased the number of failing schools from about 50 to about 10, school board President Dani Hernandez told the Austin American-Statesman, a member of the USA TODAY Network.
“I do think HISD has a lot of room to grow,” she said. “I think that the elected board is doing what they need to do to get there and has significantly improved over the last couple of years.”
Many parents and stakeholders are apprehensive about the state takeover since they don’t know who will serve on the board, she said.
“Whoever is in charge, we hope that they are there to make sure that all students have an equitable education and that all students are learning,” Hernandez said.
‘A symptom of the problem’
For Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the state takeover of the Houston district was necessary. He said the district was marred with corruption and improper practices.
“The school itself is a symptom of a problem,” Bettencourt told the Statesman on Wednesday.
These types of turnarounds usually take two to six years, but Houston’s intervention could be done sooner with the right guidance.
“These are things that don’t happen in other school districts,” Bettencourt said.
Democratic lawmakers, on the other hand, were furious with the move.
“This is upsetting the whole city,” said Allen, who lamented the loss of local control.
Allen has filed a bill this legislative session that would give state education officials the option to appoint a board of managers or close down a campus, rather than make it a requirement, if a campus fails five years in a row.
Allen was one of several Democrats who spoke at a news conference Wednesday to express their outrage.
“We’re really very pissed off, quite frankly,” said Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Democrat and chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. “Enough is enough.”
Reynolds is worried the takeover will mean less representation for students of color in Houston, he said.
“This is an upfront power grab,” Reynolds said. “This is an attempt to push vouchers, to promote and push the things Gov. Abbott cares about.”
The governor disputed any suggestion that the takeover was linked to the school choice debate currently unfolding in the Texas Legislature. “All that is completely separate from what is happening with HISD,” Abbott said.
The timeline of the state takeover
The pathway to the state takeover began in 2019 when the Texas Education Agency told the Houston district it would appoint a board of managers because Wheatley High School had failed to meet state academic standards multiple years in a row.
At the same time, state investigators found multiple Texas Open Meetings Act violations and improper interference with vendor selection from board trustees who are no longer on the board, The Houston Chronicle reported.
The district filed a lawsuit in 2020 that wound its way up to the Texas Supreme Court. In January, the Supreme Court released an opinion that the TEA had authority to take over the Houston district
Other Texas school districts could be next
The takeover should be a concern for superintendents around the state, especially those in large urban districts, said David DeMatthews, associate professor the University of Texas Department of Educational Leadership and Policy.
“Superintendents, especially in large districts, are coming to terms with the fact the state is not a partner,” DeMatthews said. “The state is not there to be transparent. The accountability system is a sham.”
Since 2019, when the state began the takeover process, the Houston district has improved student performance, DeMatthews said.
“If HISD has made improvements, the state should be backing away right now and it’s doing the opposite,” DeMatthews said.
In the Austin school district, Mendez Middle School has been in hot water since 2013, when it failed to meet state standards.
In Texas, a district in which a campus doesn’t reach state academic standards for five consecutive years could face state intervention, including the replacement of the district’s school board members with state-appointed trustees.
The Austin district has avoided the drastic move partly because the state didn’t rate schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and because it has partnered with charter networks to run Mendez Middle School.
But officials at other districts shouldn’t be concerned because the situation surrounding Houston district is so unique, Bettencourt said.
“These schools have been on and off the improvement list for the better part of a decade,” Bettencourt said.
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