Texas Education Agency will take control of Houston ISD in June
After a prolonged legal battle and weeks of speculation, the Texas Education Agency on Wednesday confirmed it’s removing Houston Independent School District’s democratically elected school board and superintendent, effectively putting the state in charge of its largest school district.
The TEA will appoint a “board of managers” and replace Superintendent Millard House II and the current school board after June 1. The move is in response to years of poor academic outcomes at a single high school in the district, which TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said requires his agency to either close that campus or appoint a new board to oversee the district.
“Even with a delay of three full years caused by legal proceedings, systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact students most in need of our collective support,” Morath wrote in a letter to district leaders Wednesday.
ReferenceTEA letter to HISD leaders
Documents first reported by The Texas Tribune on Tuesday night show the agency had been getting ready to appoint new leaders. Before taking down the documents from its website, the agency posted job applications for the new board of managers, which would replace the current school board.
Houston ISD, with 76 schools and an enrollment of nearly 200,000 students, will now be the largest district the agency has taken over since 2000, when it first placed a board of managers to oversee a struggling school district.
The TEA commissioner decides how long the board is in place. Usually, these sort of takeovers last two to six years.
State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, said the agency is gambling with the livelihood and education of hundreds of thousands of kids.
“We have way bigger issues weighing on our state that could use the governor’s immediate attention,” Johnson said.
State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, said Morath met with the Houston delegation Wednesday morning to explain the takeover process.
“We’re outraged,” Reynolds said. “This is a dark day for HISD.”
Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said the teachers union opposes the state replacing the democratically elected board.
"We will work night and day to make sure that students have access to specific programs and services that they need and deserve to receive a high-quality public education in Houston schools,” she said.
Morath and the agency first moved to force out the district’s school board in 2019 in response to allegations of misconduct by trustees and years of low student performance at Phillis Wheatley High School. The district pushed back and sued, but ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in January that the agency could move forward with its plan to take over the district.
“In prior years, Houston ISD was governed by a Board of Trustees that did not focus on improving student outcomes,” Morath wrote in his letter. “Instead, the Board conducted chaotic board meetings marred by infighting while Board members routinely exceeded their authority, directing staff in violation of the school laws of Texas.”
Student outcomes have improved at both Phillis Wheatley and the district at large since Morath first announced a possible takeover. The TEA, which grades schools and districts each year based on their academic achievement, gave the high school a grade of F in 2019. Last year, Phillis Wheatley got a C, and Houston ISD as a whole received a B. In the last 19 months, HISD has made strides reducing the number of its campuses with a D or F rating from 50 to 10. Ninety-four percent of HISD schools now earn a grade of A, B or C.
Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of the Community Voices for Public Education, a local education advocacy group, said the commissioner should have been congratulating Houston ISD for its recent academic improvement instead of punishing it.
"The takeover of the largest school district in Texas is a politically motivated, irresponsible experiment that will worsen inequities and disenfranchise Houston voters," she said.
Nyla McCullum, a graduating senior at Phillis Wheatley, said the takeover is a big disappointment for everyone that’s worked to get the high school in better standing with the state.
“The test scores have risen, but they're still trying to take over after we have worked so hard to accomplish that,” McCullum said.
House, the current superintendent, said the TEA’s decision should not discount gains the district has made since he took over in 2021.
“As we wrap up this school year, my focus will be on working with our Board of Trustees and the TEA to ensure a smooth transition without disruption to our core mission of providing an exceptional educational experience for all students.”
While House will be replaced, the agency said it would like him to stay to consult for the new superintendent, unless House has a new job lined up.
The TEA has taken over 15 school districts in its history. It still manages Marlin ISD, outside of Waco, and Shepherd ISD, east of Conroe. The agency gave back control of eight districts to their local school boards; in other instances, it has shut them down or annexed them to other districts.
Chloe Sikes, deputy director of policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association, said research shows that school takeovers are not effective in increasing student achievement. Instead, there is an increase in teacher turnover and lack of communication between the community and an appointed board.
“In some cases, it’s led to greater turnover and turmoil in the district,” Sikes said.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said the Houston ISD board has failed to raise students’ scores and fully supports the TEA’s actions.
“Commissioner Morath made the right decision by choosing to install a Board of Managers for the future of the students, families, and staff of HISD,” Bettencourt said.
Harris County GOP Chair Cindy Siegel said the state takeover is an unfortunate situation, but Houston ISD must face consequences after Phillis Wheatley received failing grades on its accountability rating for five consecutive years.
“We have to draw the line somewhere; today, the TEA drew that line,” Siegel said. “Students must come first, and the TEA stepping in is an important first step to getting the largest school district in Texas back on track."
A Texas law passed in 2015 allows a state takeover if a school district or one of its campuses receives failing grades from the TEA for five consecutive years.
In an editorial published this week in the Houston Chronicle, state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, a Phillis Wheatley alumnus who co-authored the legislation, defended the law that ultimately allowed the TEA to take over Houston ISD.
“When a student fails once, there are consequences. When a district fails at least five consecutive times, there should also be consequences,” he wrote. “HISD has failed.”
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/03/15/texas-education-houston-isd-takeover/.
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