By Aaron Miller-
The Biden administration has been asked to open a civil rights investigation into the decision by the Texas Education Agency to stage a state takeover of Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest and most diverse system whose school board was often at odds with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat who represents most of Houston, has called for the Biden administration to investigate the takeover, telling U.S. News in an interview that her office, along with the offices of Democratic state legislators in Austin, have sent reams of data and information to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which is in the process of reviewing the material.
The announcement, made by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s education commissioner, Mike Morath, amounts to one of the largest school takeovers ever in the U.S. It also deepens a high-stakes rift between Texas’ largest city, where Democrats wield control, and state Republican leaders, who have sought increased authority following election fumbles and COVID-19 restrictions.
The takeover is the latest example of Republican and predominately white state officials pushing to take control of actions in heavily minority and Democratic-led cities. They include St. Louis and Jackson, Mississippi, where the Legislature is pushing to take over the water system and for an expanded role for state police and appointed judges.
“I’m just hoping for a good outcome and that they will step in to investigate whether or not this has been appropriately acquired,” she says.
“I want the Department of Education to investigate, based on questions of equal protection of law and due process, whether or not there is discrimination and whether or not there is any way that there can be a resolution with the state working with the local school district without completely stripping the local school board.”
The urgent call follows an announcement by commissioner Mike Morath on Wednesday that a new board of managers will take control of the 195,000-student district no later than June 1 and that he plans to appoint a new superintendent in the coming weeks. In a letter to district leaders, Morath lamented five years of poor academic performance at a the high school and the need to appoint a conservator for two consecutive years to ensure improvements as the reasons for his decision.
Legal battles over the reading of a state law that outlines the conditions necessary to allow for a takeover was confirmed by a Texas Supreme Court ruling that Morath was complying with the law by intervening.
Morath said the board has failed to improve student outcomes while conducting “chaotic board meetings marred by infighting” and violating open meetings act and procurement laws. He accused the district of failing to provide proper special education services and of violating state and federal laws with its approach to supporting students with disabilities.
He cited the seven-year record of poor academic performance at one of the district’s roughly 50 high schools, Wheatley High, as well as the poor performance of several other campuses.
“The governing body of a school system bears ultimate responsibility for the outcomes of all students. While the current Board of Trustees has made progress, systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact district students,” Morath wrote in his six-page letter.
Most of Houston’s school board members have been replaced since the state began making moves toward a takeover in 2019. House became superintendent in 2021.He and the current school board will remain until the new board of managers is chosen sometime after June 1. The new board of managers will be appointed for at least two years.
House in a statement pointed to strides made across the district, saying the announcement “does not discount the gains we have made.”
He said his focus now will be on ensuring “a smooth transition without disruption to our core mission of providing an exceptional educational experience for all students.”
The Texas State Teachers Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas condemned the takeover. At a news conference in Austin, state Democratic leaders called for the Legislature to increase funding for education and raise teacher pay.
“We acknowledge that there’s been underperformance in the past, mainly due to that severe underfunding in our public schools,” state Rep. Armando Walle, who represents parts of north Houston, said.
The law was authored in 2015 by state Rep. Harold Dutton- a Democrat-and aimed to establish a tighter accountability system for some of the poorest performing schools in Houston and prod local leaders to take more aggressive action to fix them.
Although Morath acknowledged the strides made by Houston schools over the last five years and noted that the district operates some of the highest performing schools in the state, he said in the letter outlining the decision that persistent academic problems exist, and he lamented the district’s approach to supporting students with disabilities, which he said violates state and federal law.
“But district procedures have also allowed it to operate schools where the support provided to students is not adequate,” he wrote. “The governing body of a school system bears ultimate responsibility for the outcomes of all students. While the current Board of Trustees has made progress, systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact district students.”
But district leaders, teachers, parents, community members and civil rights activists are telling a much different story – a story rooted in politics, racism and what could be the most aggressive retribution to date of an urban school district that refuses to go along with a Republican governor’s culture war playbook.
Texas started moving to take over the district following allegations of misconduct by school trustees, including inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts, and chronically low academic scores at Wheatley High.
The district sued to block a takeover, but new education laws subsequently passed by the GOP-controlled state Legislature and a January ruling from the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for the state to seize control.
“All of us Texans have an obligation and should come together to reinvent HISD in a way that will ensure that we’re going to be providing the best quality education for those kids,” Abbott said Wednesday.
Schools in Houston are not under mayoral control, unlike in New York and Chicago, but as expectations of a takeover mounted, the city’s Democratic leaders unified in opposition.
Race is also an issue because the overwhelming majority of students in Houston schools are Hispanic or Black. Domingo Morel, a professor of political science and public services at New York University, said the political and racial dynamics in the Houston case are similar to instances where states have intervened elsewhere.
Texas’ education chief was appointed by its White, Republican governor, while Houston schools’ students are 62% Hispanic and 22% Black, 10% White and 4% Asian, district data show, and the city’s mayor is a Democra
Texas’ education chief was appointed by its White, Republican governor, while Houston schools’ students are 62% Hispanic and 22% Black, 10% White and 4% Asian, district data show, and the city’s mayor is a Democrat
Schools in Houston have shown marked change recently, despite being one of the weakest in the U.S and comprising mainly children from disadvantaged background In the last two years, it lifted 40 of 50 schools off the D or F accountability rating list compiled by the Texas Education Agency. The state even gave Houston schools a B grade in its most recent evaluation of the district, and the school Morath fingered for triggering the takeover received a C grade in its most recent assessment by the state.
“It begs to be asked, why is TEA taking over a school district that it gives a B grade based on the issue of one high school out of 20 plus high schools that at one time had a failing grade but now has a C grade,” asks Bishop James Dixon, head of the NAACP chapter in Houston and pastor of The Community of Faith Church in Houston. “What is the motivation?”
teachers can talk about current events and America’s history of racism in the classroom. Later, he was one of the first to sign a law that bars transgender girls from competing in school sports.
He’s pushed school districts to pull books from their shelves that center on LGBTQ issues and pledged to give parents even more rights when it comes to their children’s education – even though a “Parents Rights and Responsibilities” code is already enshrined in state law and gives parents significant control over their child’s education. Most recently, he threw his support behind a bill that would establish education savings accounts to help families who opt out of public school afford tuition at private schools and other education expenses.
“Many dots are connected to this action – critical race theory, DEI, controlling the content of classrooms as it relates to cultural education. All of this is connected,” Dixon says. “I think the public has not yet understood how massive the design is in the war against minority culture and especially African Americans and Latinos. I don’t think we understand how intricate the playbook is that’s being worked on by these operatives.”
It’s a playbook that’s unfurling in real time in Republican-controlled states across the country as governors pitch sweeping K-12 overhauls seizing on the parental education movement – overhauls that go well beyond simply mandating what parents can know and say. And the strategy is set to continue in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, where GOP presidential hopefuls have already begun jockeying to control the space.
“This is a textbook example of a general trend which is of education politics broadly getting more integrated with and tied up with general party politics,’ says Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education policy at Columbia University’s Teacher College.
In decades past, battle lines were drawn around things like accountability standards, assessments, teacher evaluations and other education-specific issues. But that’s no longer the case.
“Right now it’s really hard to separate out what’s going on in Houston,” Henig says, “from a general battle between conservative state legislatures and governors and blue cities – battles over election laws and its implementation, battles over abortions, battles over sanctuary cities.
“The real story here isn’t about the education performance in Houston or its capacity per se,” he says. “It’s about the fact that we’re polarized so politically in a partisan way and in many states that partisan polarization takes the form of red states, blue cities.”