I am a parent and teacher with Community Voices for Public Education, a Houston-based nonprofit rooted in the belief that our community schools are a public good, not a commodity to be sold off to the highest bidder. That is why we, along with many other Houstonians, have protested the attempted state takeover of Houston ISD for years—a dramatic assault on local control that may take place this week.
At a February protest, HISD student Elizabeth Rodriguez stated, “Instead of punishing us with a takeover, our schools should be better funded to make sure students have all the support we need and the facilities we deserve. We are not just test scores.”
Contrary to what you may hear from some Republican leaders, Houston Independent School District (HISD) is not a failing district. HISD received a B grade in the most recent state school ratings and is AAA bond-rated.
Why, then, is Houston ISD even under threat of a takeover?
In 2015, Texas passed a law that allows the state to take over an entire school district if even one campus is rated F in standardized test performance for five years. The state says the rationale for the takeover is Wheatley High School’s low 2019 accountability rating and problems with the HISD school board. Since 2019, when the takeover bid began, Houston ISD had successfully delayed Texas’ efforts, but the GOP-controlled state Supreme Court cleared the state’s legal path in January.
In the past few years, HISD already proved that local control works: Since 2019, voters elected an almost entirely new school board, and students and teachers worked to bring Wheatley’s state score up to a C in 2022. Since 2015, HISD reduced its number of low-performing schools from 58 to nine, which is fewer than are found in Dallas ISD. Even using the state’s deeply flawed accountability system to rate schools, Houston ISD comes out fine.
Since 2015, HISD reduced its number of low-performing schools from 58 to nine, which is fewer than are found in Dallas ISD. Nevertheless, the state’s takeover efforts persist.
Nevertheless, the state’s takeover efforts persist. If successful, a state-appointed board of managers will make all policy decisions with Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath pulling the strings behind the scenes. HISD’s democratically elected board will only have a ceremonial role with no voting authority. And the kicker is that the unelected Morath, who’s appointed by Governor Greg Abbott, has full discretion to expand the takeover. The superintendent could also be replaced, and individual schools could be parceled off to charter school operators—such as YES, KIPP, IDEA, and churches—with the usual consequences as seen around the country.
Charter schools often purposefully underenroll students with disabilities and other at-risk children, inflating their state accountability ratings. Should this occur in Houston following a takeover, the state will likely take the credit in its accountability shell game.
A takeover may also lead to teachers leaving the district, creating more classroom vacancies. The chances for a bond to replace older elementary schools will go out the window. If other takeovers are any indication, we can also expect more of our taxpayer dollars to go to costly consultants than to the needs of children.
If all this doesn’t make you mad, how about this? Over and over again, the governor and the TEA commissioner have moved the goalposts in the middle of the game.
In 2019, Wheatley High initially received a passing grade from the TEA, but the agency later changed its scoring criteria and applied them retroactively. And in January, TEA publicly announced more rule changes that will be implemented immediately and applied retroactively to last year’s seniors, whose data is counted in this year’s accountability rating. At the high school level, schools that were projecting a B rating are now projecting a D. School districts around the state are raising the alarm about the change.
We tell our children they have to be honest and to play by the rules; we should expect the governor and TEA commissioner to do the same.
Unfortunately, the state takeover of Houston ISD has nothing to do with student needs. It is about power, profits, and a willful disregard for children living in poverty.
As I ponder the district’s future, I am reminded of a student I once taught. When I went to his house to help him think about college, he had no electricity and the only furniture in the house was a bed, an engine block, and a chair. He did his homework by a street lamp outside. The last thing he needed was more pressure to meet arbitrary standardized testing goals or for the state to punish his school for serving low-income students like himself.
From Beaumont to New Orleans to Detroit, takeovers—which disproportionately target districts with high Black and Brown political participation—do not improve student achievement and experiences.
Beaumont ISD was taken over by the state in 2014 following financial issues. Four years later, under state leadership, many Beaumont ISD schools were worse off than before, triggering another takeover based on low academic performance and plummeting graduation rates. Instead of improving the school district, the state takeover led to more problems.
From Beaumont to New Orleans to Detroit, takeovers—which disproportionately target districts with high Black/Brown political participation—do not improve student achievement and experiences.
Nearly 85 percent of the districts that have been taken over by their states, nationwide, have had majority Black or Latino student populations. In Texas, roughly two-thirds of state takeovers since 1998 have been in school districts with large Black student populations.
Wasteful spending is another problem that occurs under state takeover. A 2019 report on the Detroit takeover shows roughly $610 million in wasteful spending thanks to costly consultant contracts and rampant mismanagement of the district’s schools and educational services while the state was in control.
We cannot afford for Houston’s children to suffer the same fate.
If the governor really cared about our children, he would use the state’s $33 billion surplus to fully fund our schools and ensure that students and families struggling with poverty and the long-lasting impact of the pandemic have the resources they need to learn. Instead, he continues to dish up a meal of expanded high-stakes testing, narrowing what our kids learn even more, along with prosecuting his ongoing war against the elected representatives of the state’s major cities.
We at Community Voices for Public Education urge like-minded Texans to add their names to the almost 2,000 parents and others who have signed our petition opposing the state takeover, to sit out the STAAR test to protest its nefarious use to shame our children, and to call the governor and their state legislators to demand they halt the Houston ISD state takeover.
We will accept nothing less than ensuring that our communities have control over our schools.
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