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Texas Government Undemocratically Overtakes State's Largest School District

Houston Texas school takeover demonstration
Juan A. Lozano/AP
Demonstrators protest on March 3 against the Texas Education Agency's proposed takeover of the Houston Independent School District.

The fate of nearly 200,000 American students' education will soon be controlled not by locally elected leaders but by state-appointed managers yet to be named.

(CNN) — The fate of nearly 200,000 American students' education will soon be controlled not by locally elected leaders but by state-appointed managers yet to be named.

The Texas Education Agency said it plans to appoint a board of managers to take over the Houston Independent School District -- the largest in Texas and the eighth-largest in the country. The changes will not take effect until at least June 1.

The move has raised major concerns among some Houston families — as well as questions about similar takeovers nationwide.

Houston doesn't have the worst schools in the state

While Houston ISD is the state's largest school district, it's not the lowest performer, the Houston Chronicle reported. The Houston district earned a "B" grade, scoring 88 points on the state rating scale released last year — higher than Dallas ISD, which scored 86 points, and Northside ISD in San Antonio, which scored 85, the Chronicle said.

But the Houston intervention was necessary for multiple reasons, state Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a letter to the school board and superintendent Wednesday.

"Under state law, the Commissioner is required to either appoint a Board of Managers to govern the school district or order the closure of the campus when a campus has an unacceptable performance rating for five consecutive school years," Morath wrote.

"Wheatley High School earned seven consecutive unacceptable academic ratings for the school years from 2011 through 2019."

Morath actually moved to issue a "Board of Managers" order — essentially, a takeover notice — back in 2019. But Houston ISD successfully asked for an injunction, which stayed in place until a Texas Supreme Court dissolved it this year.

This past school year, Wheatley earned an acceptable rating. "However, Wheatley's acceptable rating this year does not abrogate my prior legal requirement to intervene based on the seven consecutive unacceptable ratings that were addressed by the original Board of Managers order" that Morath issued in 2019, he wrote.

Assigning a board of managers "is not permanent," Morath wrote. He cited as another reason for the takeover the ongoing need for a special conservator to help "ensure changes were made to improve student academic performance."

When Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II took the job in 2021, he knew state intervention was already "looming," he said.

"I am proud to say, in the last 19 months, we have already seen vast improvements," the superintendent wrote. "Because of the hard work of our students, teachers, and staff, we have lifted 40 of 50 schools off the D or F TEA accountability ratings list."

Taking over the Houston district now is "punishing the whole for a small number" of schools still struggling amid overall improvement, Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina told CNN This Morning on Friday.

Officials clash on motives for the Houston takeover

The intervention reflects another recent case of White, Republican-appointed state officials trying to gain local control in cities with mostly Democratic Black or brown leaders — including in Jackson, Mississippi, and Mason, Tennessee.

"What my research shows is that there are certain factors that increase the likelihood of a [school district] takeover, and that is majority black communities ... also, increasingly Latino communities as well," said Domingo Morel, an associate professor of political science and public service at New York University.

In those communities, "the majority [are] led by African-Americans — like their city leadership and school board leadership," Morel said.

Houston's mayor, Sylvester Turner, and its school district superintendent are both Black. Morath, the head of the Texas Education Agency, and the Republican who appointed him, Gov. Greg Abbott, are both White.

"We believe that this is an attempt to push vouchers, to push [charter schools]," said Democratic state Sen. Ron Reynolds, the Houston Chronicle reported. "To promote and perpetuate the things that Gov. Abbott believes and hears about, and that obviously isn't diversity, equity, and inclusion."

It's actually Abbott who has "failed all of our schools by underfunding them," Molina said. "He is part of the problem and should step aside so the school district can continue to get better."

Still, the state lawmaker who penned legislation key to the takeover is a Black Democrat from Houston, he wrote this week in a Houston Chronicle op-ed titled, in part, "I have no regrets."

"Some people mistakenly believe that the [takeover] idea first came from Gov. Greg Abbott or some other Republican. But in fact, it came from me, a Democrat," state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. wrote, adding he aimed to stem a "continuing lack of student education success in the schools in northeast Houston."

Abbott has refuted accusations about ulterior motives and said the primary goal of the Houston schools intervention is to improve education for students.

"There has been a long-time failure by HISD and the victims of that failure are the students," Abbott said, according to CNN affiliate KHOU.

Morath, the state education commissioner, praised the Houston superintendent's work since 2021.

"Mr. House is a student-focused man of integrity, and I commend his commitment to the district, to Houston ISD teachers, and the school children and families in the district," Morath wrote.

Reasons for school takeovers across the US vary

"We have over 10,000 school districts in this country, and there's only been about 110 or so, state takeovers," said Morel, author of "Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy."

On average, state takeovers of local school districts typically last about three to five years, said Joshua Bleiberg, assistant professor of education policy at the University of Pittsburgh.

While 24 states have laws on the books allowing state takeovers, "any state could pass a law allowing the takeover of a specific district," Bleiberg said.

There are two main categories of reasons why takeovers happen, said Beth Schueler, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.

"One is there may be some sort of financial issues" — such as financial mismanagement or allegations of corruption, Schueler said. The other common reason focuses on low academic performance, she said.

On occasion, a takeover can be spurred by a combination of the two factors. Pennsylvania assumed control of failing public schools in Philadelphia in 2002, citing years of low student test scores and a series of financial crises.

State takeovers don't always improve performance

"Overall, we found no evidence that student achievement improved after state takeover," said Bleiberg, who has researched the effects of state and federal education policies on students of color and students from impoverished communities.

In Michigan, for example, following a worsening fiscal outlook, an emergency manager appointed by a Democratic governor took over the Detroit Public School System from an elected school board in 2009. But several years after the takeover, national surveys showed math and reading scores of students in Detroit remained among the nation's lowest when compared to other major metropolitan cities.

Schueler said her research aligns with Bleiberg's: On average, state takeovers of school districts generally don't result in major improvements.

While five years after the 2002 Philadelphia takeover, a report found that the city had seen "substantial districtwide gains in the proportion of students achieving proficiency since the 2002 state takeover," it also noted "after four years, the gains of its low-achieving schools (constituting most of the schools in the district) have generally not exceeded the gains of low-achieving schools elsewhere in Pennsylvania."

Other instances have shown some signs of progress. For example, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a decision "providing struggling students with extra instructional time appears to have been effective," Bleiberg said.

High-minority districts get taken over more often, even if they're not worst-performing

School districts with similar academic performances don't always get treated the same, Schueler said her research shows.

"When you control for performance — you're comparing districts that have different racial compositions with the exact same performance — the district that has a greater share of Black students is more likely to be taken over," Schueler said.

Historically, districts are more likely to be taken over by the state if they serve relatively large proportions of Black students, Hispanic/Latin students, or students from low-income families, Bleiberg said.

In Houston, the majority of students are Hispanic (62 percent), followed by African-American (22 percent), White (9.5 percent) and Asian (4.5 percent), according to the district. More than 100 languages are spoken among Houston students, and more than 79 percent of the student population is economically disadvantaged.

According to state standards, most schools in Houston ISD "are doing well," Morel said. Even Wheatley High School — the school cited by the Texas Education Agency as part of the reason for the takeover — has improved.

"And so the whole district is now being taken over for reasons that are primarily focused on a very few schools in a very large district — and specifically one school in a very large district," Morel said.

Schueler said she can't speak to whether or how much politics plays a role in Texas' decision to take over the Houston school district, but generally thinks "it's political ... in the sense that there are political factors that predict whether or not it happens." she said.

"We actually find that it's not so much whether the governor is a Republican that predicts whether takeover happens. But it occurs more likely when all three branches of the state government are controlled by the Republican Party."

Some families are worried about what happens next

Many Houston parents, educators and students are fearful about how the state takeover might impact their schools, said Armando Orduña, executive director of Latinos for Education Texas, which advocates for equity in education.

Families are worried, he said, about whether the state will prioritize retaining teachers of color, which advocates say is critical to the success of Black and brown students who face poverty, language barriers and other socioeconomic challenges.

"We are concerned that losing educator diversity would be taking a large step backward in student achievement," Orduña said.

"We know that when students of color have educators who look like them, educators who share their same cultural backgrounds, if not their linguistic backgrounds, we know that those students are more likely ... to have better discipline records, higher attendance records."

With the takeover announcement coming during the academic spring break, "our parents, our students ... have no idea what's going on, let alone our educators," Molina said.

"We are taking the rights of elected board members away," she added. "We are doing away with an elected school board and making an appointment. And these people that are going to be coming into the Board of Managers don't even have to have an education background."

"Why wouldn't we listen to educators and why wouldn't we want community input?" Molina asked.

State leaders should include local representatives from the school community in their decisions, Orduña said.

"We are hopeful that state politics will not be played out in the day-to-day business of a local school district here in the city of Houston," he said.

"The families and the educators with whom we work are disheartened by the takeover but hopeful that as it manifests, we will be able to work with the people on the other end of the board room toward common solutions that are for the best interest of all the families."

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