Since mid-March this year, when the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced it would be taking over the Houston Independent School District, the state agency has demurred when asked about the district’s future, saying decisions will be made by a 9-member board of managers to be selected from the local community by TEA Commissioner Mike Morath.
But interviews with and contemporaneous notes from participants in TEA’s April 22-23 board of managers applicants training, as well as an audio recording of the sessions obtained by the Texas Observer, reveal the state plans to limit the board’s role to enforcing high-stakes testing in schools and rubber-stamping financial and operational decisions made by the new superintendent, also to be selected by Morath.
In what seemed like a 16-hour indoctrination session, TEA’s “Lone Star Governance” program trainers had the 230 applicants who attended repeat self-flagellating mantras about their lack of integrity and lack of concern for student success to get them ready for what they called the “Lone Star Governance mindset.”
Lindsey Pollock, a former Houston ISD elementary school principal of 13 years and a current professor teaching in Sarasota University’s educational leadership graduate program, who participated in the training sessions, told the Observer: “I spent two days being demeaned by a presenter who had purposeful intentions to mislead and misrepresent the reasons we were all there. … They were only looking for people who were going to be agreeable.”
“I spent two days being demeaned by a presenter who had purposeful intentions to mislead and misrepresent the reasons we were all there. … They were only looking for people who were going to be agreeable.”
According to the Texas Association of School Boards’ website, “The main function of the school board is to provide local citizen governance and oversight of education.” A local school board typically has the responsibility to adopt the mission and goals of the district, to monitor its progress towards its goals, to write and review local policies, to hire and oversee the superintendent, to engage with the community, and to adopt a budget and monitor the district’s fiscal activity by hiring an independent auditor. Houston ISD’s annual budget is $2.2 billion.
“It’s very important that a school board has checks and balances to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly,” said Anne Sung, former Houston ISD school board member. “If there are allegations around financial malfeasance or misuse of grant funding, as we’ve seen in some school districts in the state of Texas, those things need to be identified.”
But in an apparent dissolution of local oversight, the “Lone Star Governance” creator and trainer A.J. Crabill told potential board members at the training, “The vast majority of the financial decisions, once the board adopts the budget, have already been made by the administration. … Once the board delegates, it’s done.”
In 2021, Texas legislators helped expand the state’s power over local school districts in a trade-off to prevent school districts from being potentially sanctioned for low test scores during the pandemic. Senate Bill 1365 gave the TEA broad disciplinary power to initiate a “special investigation” into school districts for just about anything. After the investigation finds violations were made, the state can place a state conservator over a school district, as it recently did with the Austin Independent School District . After a two-year conservatorship, the state can choose to replace the locally elected school board with a state-appointed board of managers, as happened in Houston. The law also made it easier for the state to take over school districts if a district contains any single school receiving a “D” accountability rating, not only an “F” rating, for consecutive years.
TEA has stated that the Houston takeover will last a minimum of two years, during which time the school district needs to meet exit criteria whereby no single campus may receive a D or F rating for “multiple years” (TEA has not specified what “multiple” means), there are no special education law violations, and there is “a school board that is highly focused on student outcomes.” Forty-four percent of Texas school districts had at least one school that received a D or F from TEA in 2019, according to an Observer analysis of TEA’s school accountability data.
Even after the Houston board of managers is selected, Morath will have the power to get rid of any manager at his own discretion.
During the sessions, TEA trainers also told applicants that the board’s sole focus was to set the “student outcome” goals and the “goals and values of the community.” But when Pollock, the ex-principal, said community members value other measures of learning apart from the state’s standardized test, called STAAR, TEA’s training facilitator Ashley Paz backtracked and said student outcome goals have to start with standardized test scores.
Another participant raised concerns that other subjects would be overlooked with the state’s emphasis on standardized testing, to which Paz replied, “You don’t think reading and math are important?”
When participant Pamela Boveland, a retired director of research and technology at the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, asked Crabill, one of the trainers, if students in vulnerable communities would be provided with more resources to succeed, Crabill seemed to dismiss her question by citing his own upbringing: “As a child who … was in foster care and aged out, I have absolutely no sympathy for the idea that I could not be taught.”
Crabill also suggested that teachers are only as good as their students’ standardized test scores: “We might choose to increase teacher retention if we feel like that’s going to help us improve student outcomes. But if we do that and those outcomes don’t improve, we need to figure something else out. The only reason the whole system exists is to improve student outcomes.”
As a parent with a child in the school district, Sung, the ex-board member, expressed concern that if the new board’s primary focus is standardized test scores, it would disempower the board to address the community’s diverse concerns.
“If they’re being told that the only thing that matters is STAAR scores, then you can’t weigh in when the community is concerned about other matters. I want my child to learn. But I also want my child to be happy at school,” Sung said. “It seems like we’ll be too busy staring at student outcomes or test scores to wonder why can’t we teach our kids about the real history of America, or why we are not allowed to vote for our own leaders here, or run our own elections? All of those things are connected.”
“It seems like we’ll be too busy staring at student outcomes or test scores to wonder why can’t we teach our kids about the real history of America, or why we are not allowed to vote for our own leaders here, or run our own elections?”
During the training sessions, Pollock asked Paz if a locally elected board could resume leadership of the district if the state failed to improve “student outcomes” and standardized test scores declined. Paz replied, “That’s up to Mike Morath.”
In response to an Observer request for comment, TEA spokesperson Jake Kobersky sent the following statement, which is also found on the TEA website: “Appointed board of managers in Houston ISD will have the same roles, responsibilities, and authority as the elected board of trustees. This includes working collaboratively with the superintendent, holding all meetings in public, allowing for public comment, holding public hearings, and posting all required budget and tax information for public review and discussion.”
Some participants at the April training, like Pollock and Boveland, fear the sessions will reflect how the state will relate to students, parents, and school employees in Houston’s public schools. “There was a fear-based system of control in the room. In other words, don’t step out of line or you will be marginalized, shamed, and embarrassed. Any sort of independent thought will not be tolerated,” Pollock said.
Other participants, who Boveland said “drank the TEA kool-aid,” started echoing the idea that any failure to improve high-stakes test scores is a personal failing of officials and educators. By the end of the training, several participants were parroting the trainers’ mantras, repeated throughout the sessions: “Adult behavior has to change for student outcomes to change” and “I am the genesis of transformation.”
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