SD News Roundup: The Takeover of Houston Independent School District

I’m excited to feature a new collaborating author on the SD Notebook – Jeremy Anderson is a Ph.D. candidate at Penn State and a colleague on the voluntary integration research team led by Erica Frankenberg.

On November 6, 2019, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced a state takeover of Houston Independent School District. With 209,772 students, Houston ISD is the largest school district in Texas and the seventh largest in the country. The TEA issued a 23-page letter to the Houston Board of Trustees explaining that the takeover was due to a previously lowered accreditation status, the findings of a special accreditation investigation, and the “unacceptable” performance of a single district campus. As a result, Texas Education Commissioner, Mike Morath, announced plans to appoint a new superintendent and replace the district’s elected board with a state-appointed board of managers composed of community leaders, business representatives, and education experts. The takeover has been highly controversial mainly for its connection to Houston ISD’s history of segregation and the severity of the Texas Education Agency’s plan.

Under Texas state law (HB 1842), the TEA can choose to takeover any district that has even one school that has been labeled “improvement required” for five or more years. Texas’s state takeover requirement is a remarkably low bar for state intervention. The takeover of Houston ISD is the first real test for the law that passed in 2015 and it’s not clear that the TEA has a clear plan for how to return control to the district afterwards.

State takeovers of other large school districts, such as Detroit, Newark, or New Orleans, came amid accusations of large-scale school failure or extreme financial mismanagement. These were not the conditions in Houston ISD. In 2018, the district received an overall B academic rating from the state. While they had financial difficulties common of large districts, they were not insolvent or under a financial emergency. Houston ISD has 288 schools, but the recommendation for takeover mainly concerned Wheatley High School, a school that predominantly serves students of color from a lower income area of the city. The school was rated as “underperforming” for seven consecutive years. Wheatley High School is in Houston’s Fifth Ward, a highly segregated area of the city that suffers from a poor economy. 800 students attend Wheatley High School, of which 53% are African American and 46% are Hispanic. HISD continues to struggle with a history of school and residential racial segregation. This segregation has led to the financial neglect of many of the district’s highest poverty schools, including Wheatley.

The takeover of Houston ISD was temporarily blocked in January when a Travis County District judge issued an injunction against the TEA until the courts resolved the matter. The district judge found that the “potential, irreversible harm” done to Houston ISD without the injunction would outweigh any potential harm to the public. The TEA has already stated that they intend to appeal the ruling so that they can commence in appointing a board of managers. In the meantime, the Houston Federation of Teachers and Texas Federation of Teachers have also requested an injunction against the takeover.  

The severity of the Texas Education Agency’s takeover plan follows a pattern of state takeovers of school districts in other states that predominately serve students of color and are commonly led by people of color. Domingo Morel, a professor of political science at Rutgers, has documented the interplay between race and political power in district takeovers in his research. As described in an earlier posthe has found that majority African American and majority Latino districts are more likely to be taken over by the state than majority white school districts. On top of that, majority Black and Latino districts are more likely to have their school board replaced or abolished. 

Source: Takeover by Domingo Morel. Graphics: Sam Park

 Morel recently argued against the Houston takeover stating

“The Houston public school system is not failing. Rather, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the Republican state legislature are manufacturing an education crisis to prevent people of color in Houston from exercising their citizenship rights and seizing political power.”

Domingo Morel, The Conversation, January 10, 2020

To his point, a recent article about the takeover notes that:

  • “Currently, HISD is represented by 9 trustees, 8 of whom are people of color. All are women.”
  • “Since 2008, 13 of the 14 school districts targeted by TEA for takeover were minority school districts.”

The takeover by TEA is so troubling, in part, because by appointing their own board of managers the plan disenfranchises local Houston families, particularly families of students of color who make up a majority of the student population. This takeover does seem like an overreach by the state when other options to help the district were not fully explored. Texas is not the only state to pass a law with such a low bar for takeover. In 2015, the Ohio state legislature enacted HB70 which allows for a state appointed “academic distress commission” to be put in charge of districts that fail to meet adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years. The results of HB70 have been so controversial and chaotic that the Ohio state legislature recently enacted a one-year moratorium on school district takeovers to figure out a solution. State takeovers of large, diverse school districts have produced questionable results towards their stated goals of improving academic achievement.

For instance articles exploring the state takeovers of Detroit Public Schools in Michigan and multiple school districts in Ohio find that:

  • In Detroit, state official seeking short term financial fixes, left the district with $299 million of long-term debt by the end of the takeover.
  • Detroit Public Schools’ state managers enacted no meaningful reforms towards improving student’s academic achievement during the district’s 15-year takeover.
  • Youngstown School District in Ohio has seen worse academic results compared to the state average since their takeover in 2010.
  • Lorain City Schools in Ohio have not seen improved academic results since the state took over the district in 2018. It has also had to deal with additional stresses and controversies surrounding the state appointed CEO of the district

Houston ISD as a whole is not failing. Rather a handful of district campuses, that have been historically neglected due to pervasive segregation, need help. These schools need assistance in the form of increased funding and access to more resources for their students. State takeover laws like those in Texas and Ohio are so restrictive that they ignore the overarching issues facing underserved schools in these states. In a guest post for the SD Notebook, Tim Jackson gave an on-the-ground view of Arkansas’ takeover of Little Rock School District in November. Little Rock’s situation echoes that of Houston ISD and others in that it is a state takeover of a school district that predominantly serves students of color when a small number of schools are identified as struggling. In Little Rock, the state proposed to reinstate local control to the majority-white schools in LRSD while retaining state control over a sub-set of schools that predominately serve student of color. In Houston, meanwhile, the state is taking over an entire district on spurious claims about the performance of one school. We’ll keep you updated as the case works its way through the court system. And, in the meantime, if you have any on-the-ground updates from Houston, please feel free to reach out in comments or on twitter.  

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