Texas officials announced Wednesday the state takeover of the nearly 200,000-student Houston public school district, the eighth-largest in the country, following years of threats and angering Democrats, who criticized the move as political.
The announcement, made by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s education commissioner, amounts to one of the largest school takeovers in the United States.
The takeover is the latest example of Republican and predominantly white state officials pushing to seize control of stocks in cities led by minorities and Democrats. They include St. Louis and Jackson, Mississippi, where the Legislature is pushing to take over the water system and a larger role for state police and appointed judges.
In a letter to the Houston Independent School District, state Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the Texas Education Agency will replace the superintendent. Millard House II and the district’s elected board of directors with a new superintendent and an appointed board of managers made up of residents within the district’s boundaries.
Morath said the board has failed to improve student outcomes while conducting “chaotic board meetings marred by infighting” and violating open meetings law and takeover laws. She accused the district of failing to provide adequate 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 50 or so high schools, Wheatley High, as well as poor performance at several other campuses.
“The governing body of a school system has ultimate responsibility for the results of all students. While the current Board of Trustees has made progress, systemic issues in Houston ISD continue to affect students in the district,” Morath wrote in his six-page letter.
Most of Houston’s school board members have been replaced since the state began taking control in 2019. House became superintendent in 2021.
He and the current school board will remain until the new board of managers is elected sometime after June 1. The new board of managers will be appointed for at least two years.
House in a statement noted progress being made across the district, saying the announcement “does not discount the gains we’ve made.”
He said his focus will now be on ensuring “a smooth and seamless transition 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 on the Legislature to increase funding for education and increase teacher pay.
“We recognize that there has been poor performance in the past, primarily due to severe funding shortfalls in our public schools,” said State Rep. Armando Walle, who represents parts of North Houston.
An annual Census Bureau survey of public school funding showed that Texas spent $10,342 per student in fiscal year 2020, more than $3,000 less than the national average, according to the Kindergarten Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston. .
The state was able to take over the district under a state law change that Houston Democratic state representative Harold Dutton Jr. proposed in 2015. In an op-ed in the houston chronicle on Monday, Dutton said he doesn’t regret what he did.
“We’re hearing opposition voices, people who say HISD shouldn’t face the consequences for allowing a school to fail for more than five consecutive years. The concern of those critics is misplaced,” Dutton wrote.
Schools in other big cities, including Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Detroit, have in recent decades gone through state buyouts, which are generally considered a last resort for underperforming schools and are often met with backlash from community. Critics argue that state interventions have generally not led to big improvements.
Texas began moving to take over the district following allegations of misconduct by school administrators, including inappropriate influence of vendor contracts and chronically low academic scores at Wheatley High School.
The district sued to block a takeover, but the GOP-controlled state Legislature subsequently passed new education laws and a January ruling by the Texas Supreme Court paved the way for the state to take over.
“All Texans have an obligation and must come together to reinvent HISD in a way that ensures that we will provide the best quality education for these children,” Abbott said Wednesday.
Schools in Houston are not under the mayor’s control, unlike in New York and Chicago, but as expectations of a takeover mounted, the city’s Democratic leaders rallied in opposition.
Race is also an issue because the vast majority of students in Houston schools are either Latino or Black. Domingo Morel, a professor of political science and public service at New York University, said the political and racial dynamics in the Houston case are similar to instances where states have intervened elsewhere.
“If we only focus on taking over school districts because they are underperforming, we would have a lot more takeovers,” Morel said. “But that’s not what happens.”
Lozano reported from Houston and Weber from Austin, Texas. Associated Press writer Acacia Coronado in Austin contributed to this report.