Failing schools prompt Texas to take over Houston district. Democrats worry about consequences

The Texas Education Agency announced Wednesday that it will appoint a new superintendent and board of directors to take over the state’s largest school district in Houston after years of schools failing to meet state standards.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was on a tour of Texas to advocate for parental control and the use of public money for private school vouchers. He said Wednesday that the Houston Independent School District’s academic problems are deep-rooted and systemic, and the acquisition had nothing to do with the school vouchers push.

“HISD has long failed, and the victims of that failure are the students,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers worry the acquisition could impact other school districts in Texas, particularly those in large urban areas. And some are pitching it as part of a push by conservative Republicans to overhaul education across the country.

“It’s a national movement,” said Rep. Alma Allen, a Democrat who represents part of south Houston and is vice chair of the House Public Education Committee. “Republicans plan to take over education in the United States.”

In a letter sent to the Houston District on Wednesday, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath noted that he would be appointing new managers for the district beginning June 1.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference March 15, 2023 in Austin, Texas. governor

Morath commended Houston’s existing school board for trying to make progress, noting that the district operates some of the state’s top-performing schools.

“But past academic performance problems continue to require action under state law,” Morath said. “Even with a full three-year delay caused by court cases, systemic issues across the Houston ISD continue to impact students who most need collective support.”

Since 2019, the district has reduced the number of failing schools from about 50 to about 10, said School Board President Dani Hernandez said the Austin American-Statesmana member of the USA TODAY Network.

“I think HISD has a lot of room to grow,” she said. “I think the elected board is doing what it needs to do to get there and has improved significantly in recent years.”

Many parents and stakeholders are concerned about the state takeover because they don’t know who will sit on the board, she said.

“Whoever is in charge, we hope they are there to make sure all students are getting an equitable education and that all students are learning,” Hernandez said.

“A Symptom of the Problem”

For Republican Senator Paul Bettencourt, state takeover of the District of Houston was necessary. He said the district was riddled with corruption and improper practices.

“The school itself is a symptom of a problem,” Bettencourt told the Statesman on Wednesday.

These types of turnarounds typically take two to six years, but Houston’s intervention could come 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 at the move.

“It worries the whole city,” said Allen, who lamented the loss of local control.

Allen introduced a bill this legislature that would give state education officials the option of appointing a board of directors or closing a campus, rather than making it mandatory if a campus fails five years in a row.

Allen was one of several Democrats who expressed outrage at a news conference on Wednesday.

“We’re really, really pissed off, to be honest,” said Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Democrat and chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. “Enough is enough.”

Reynolds worries the acquisition will mean less representation for Houston students of color, he said.

“This is a power grab ahead of time,” Reynolds said. “This is an attempt to push coupons, to promote and advance the things Governor Abbott cares about.”

The governor denied any suggestion that the acquisition was related to the school choice debate currently unfolding in the Texas legislature. “All of this is completely separate from what’s happening with HISD,” Abbott said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, center, speaks at Brazos Christian School in Bryan, Texas on Tuesday, March 7, 2023.  Abbott attended the school as part of the Parent Empowerment Coalition tour.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, center, speaks at Brazos Christian School in Bryan, Texas on Tuesday, March 7, 2023. Abbott attended the school as part of the Parent Empowerment Coalition tour.

The timeline of the state takeover

The road to state ownership began in 2019 when the Texas Education Agency notified the District of Houston that it would appoint a board of directors because Wheatley High School had failed to meet state academic standards for consecutive years.

At the same time, state investigators found multiple violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act and improper interference in supplier selection by trustees who are no longer on the board, The Houston Chronicle reported.

The district filed a lawsuit in 2020 that went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. In January, the Supreme Court issued an opinion authorizing the TEA to take over the District of Houston

Other school districts in Texas could be next

The takeover should worry superintendents across the state, especially in large boroughs, said David DeMatthews, an associate professor in the University of Texas’ Department of Educational Leadership and Policy.

“Superintendents, especially in large districts, reconcile that 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 adoption process, the Houston District has improved student performance, DeMatthews said.

“If HISD has made improvements, the state should be pulling out 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 fails to meet state academic standards for five consecutive years could face state intervention, including replacing district school board members with state-appointed trustees.

The Austin County avoided the drastic move in part because the state failed to rate schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and because it partnered with charter networks to operate Mendez Middle School.

But officials in other districts shouldn’t worry because the situation around Houston District is so unique, Bettencourt said.

“These schools have been up and down the improvement list for almost a decade,” Bettencourt said.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Texas state officials are taking over schools in Houston. Democrats concerned.

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