Houston educators brace for Abbott's takeover of public school district

People protest the proposed takeover of Houston's school district by the Texas Education Agency
People protest the proposed takeover of Houston's school district by the Texas Education Agency. (Juan A. Lozano/AP)
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to seize control of Houston’s public school district and install a handpicked board of managers in place of the duly elected school board is not sitting well with the city’s educators.

“We’re very concerned,” Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, told Yahoo News.

Daniel Santos, who has twice received the Teacher of the Year award in the district, was even more blunt. “The politicians in Austin are coming for our schools,” he wrote in a Twitter post.

Abbott claims that drastic action is needed to address the poor performance of some schools in the state’s largest district, including Phillis Wheatley High School, where just 27% of students, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black or Hispanic, met the state’s proficiency standards in the 2021-22 school year. The state and the Houston Independent School District (HISD) have been locked in a legal battle over the takeover since 2019, with the Texas Supreme Court ruling that it could now go forward.

The protracted court fight ignores the fact that student outcomes in the district have improved in recent years, Robison said.

“The district had made significant progress in the past four years, and why was that disrupted? Why should the school district, the students in the school district and their parents go through extra years to get back to where they were getting already?” he continued.

Phillis Wheatley High School
Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston. (via WikiCommons)

HISD, where 79.2% of students are classified as “economically disadvantaged,” received a B rating from the state for the 2021-22 academic year. The Texas Education Agency, the education arm of the state, highlighted the C rating given to Phillis Wheatley to justify the state takeover of the district.

“This intervention was necessary because of the consecutive unacceptable academic accountability ratings received by Wheatley High School, a Special Accreditation Investigation that demonstrated multiple violations of law in the district, and the fact that the continued appointment of a conservator had been necessary in the district for at least two school years to ensure changes were made to improve student academic performance,” Mike Morath, the Abbott-appointed TEA commissioner, wrote in a March 15 letter to current HISD Superintendent Millard House II and trustees of the current school board, shared with Yahoo News by the agency.

Under state law H.B. 1842, 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. But Robison argues that Wheatley High School and the entire district have been making progress since 2019.

“Our view is that the ultimate problem with Wheatley High School is people like Greg Abbott,” Robison said. “Abbott has been in office now for more than eight years and has consistently underfunded public schools. This year his top priority is pushing private school vouchers to take even more money from public schools. The state began this, and Mike Morath is an appointee of Greg Abbott, answerable to no taxpayer. He’s answerable only to Greg Abbott.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. (Eric Gay/AP)

The law, which was passed in 2015 with strong support by state Republicans, was sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton, a graduate of HISD and one of Houston’s longest-serving legislators. Dutton said in a March 13 op-ed that he was “alarmed by the continuing lack of student education success in the schools in northeast Houston.”

“We’re hearing voices of opposition, people who say that HISD shouldn’t have to face consequences for allowing a campus to fail for more than five consecutive years. Those critics’ concern is misplaced,” Dutton wrote.

Other Democratic state lawmakers representing Houston counter that the legislation was a mistake and have urged the Texas Legislature to find a solution that won’t disrupt the community and simply toss out a democratically elected school board. The state’s heavy-handed intervention is viewed by critics as a Republican power grab in a city controlled by Democrats where more than half the population is either Black or Hispanic.

“Houston is a Democratic city,” Robison said. “The Houston Independent School District is not the only school district in the city, but it’s the central school district. It’s primarily students of color. It’s a push toward privatization, and we also see political overtones there.”

Morath said the problems with the district extend beyond student performance, citing “chaotic board meetings marred by infighting” in his March 15 letter.

“Members routinely exceeded their authority, directing staff in violation of the school laws of Texas. A former board majority blatantly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, and board members broke Texas procurement law,” Morath said, adding, “A school board has a solemn responsibility to focus above all else on serving all students enrolled in its school system. It does this by ensuring its superintendent is positioned to provide a strong set of supports for district teachers and staff who work directly with those students, not just on some of its campuses, but all of them.”

Millard House II
Houston Independent School District Superintendent Millard House II. (Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP)

While Republican governors and lawmakers have been pursuing aggressive “parents’ rights” agendas to shape the curriculum and policies at public schools, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, took aim at the impending takeover of HISD as an assault on those same rights.

“If a board of managers because of a takeover of the Houston Independent School District runs the school district, no parent, no teacher, no student, no voter, no principal, no superintendent that we have now will ever have any input into how our children are taught,” Lee said in a video message posted to Twitter last week. “A board of managers has one boss — not a voter, not a parent, not a teacher. It is one boss, the commissioner of the TEA.”

While the takeover has been billed as a temporary fix, by law the newly appointed board of managers will be installed until a campus deemed to be below state standards “has an acceptable academic performance rating for two years.”

For Robison, that open-ended timeline is an invitation to more problems than it will likely be able to fix.

“There were all kinds of socioeconomic reasons related to learning in public schools,” he said. “All of this gets dumped on the local school district. Unlike charter schools or private schools, which can handpick their students, traditional public schools have to accept every student who lives in the district. Whether these kids are prepared to come to school and prepared to learn, education is the school district's job. But there's a limit to what the teachers can do about it, and they know that impacts their ability to learn, and the teachers are concerned. We are, at least we were, making progress with many of these kids. And now we don't know what’s going to happen.”