Public education advocates on Wednesday were outraged as Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's administration announced the state would take over the Houston Independent School District despite recent improvements in school performance that were achieved as the district remains chronically underfunded.
State education commissioner Mike Morath announced the takeover by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in a letter to district officials, saying the decision had been made largely due to several years of low "accountability ratings" for a single high school—one of 50 high schools and 276 public schools in the city.
Phillis Wheatley High School, where 96% of students financially qualify for a free lunch program and the student body is made up almost entirely of people of color, was cited as a primary reason for the TEA's original attempt to take control of the district in 2019.
In 2015, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law mandating a state takeover of any school district where at least one campus was given a failing grade for student performance by the TEA for five consecutive years—a threshold Wheatley met in 2019.
HISD sued the state to block the 2019 takeover attempt, and has made strides in improving test scores since then. Wheatley earned a C grade from TEA in 2022, and the school district reduced the number of schools that earned a D or F—50 in 2019 compared to just 10 last year. According to the Texas Tribune, 94% of schools in the state's largest school district were given an A, B, or C grade last year, while HISD earned a B.
"The test scores have risen, but they're still trying to take over after we have worked so hard to accomplish that," Nyla McCullum, who is set to graduate from Wheatley this spring, told the Tribune.
The improvements have been achieved even as the state of Texas has spent more than $3,000 less per pupil on public school funding, according to the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. HISD teachers earn nearly $1,000 less on average than other educators in Texas, teaching in a district where more than 78% of students are economically disadvantaged. More than 61% of HISD students are Latino and 22% are Black.
Despite the improvements in academic performance, the Republican-led state legislature passed education laws in recent years clearing the way for the takeover to move forward.
"The state takeover of HISD is not about public education—it's about political control of a 90% Black and brown student body in one of the country's most diverse cities," said the ACLU of Texas. "And it's not what our students and teachers need."
Under the takeover, which will officially take effect in June, the TEA will replace Superintendent Millard House II, who joined the district in 2021, and will appoint a "board of managers" in place of the district's elected board of trustees. The board will be in control of the district for at least two years, according to the Associated Press.
"The state-appointed managers will hold immense power," reportedHouston Public Media. "They can control the budget, school closures, collaborations with charter networks, policies around curriculum and library books, as well as hiring or firing the superintendent, among other important decisions."
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called the takeover "a shameful power play" with the ultimate aim of weakening public schools.
The takeover comes as Republicans in Missouri are pushing a proposal to place St. Louis police under the control of the governor and right-wing lawmakers in Mississippi are advocating for state control of the police, courts, and the water system in Jackson, which has a higher percentage of Black residents than any other major U.S. city.
The Houston-based advocacy group Community Voice for Public Education called the takeover "an irresponsible experiment that will disenfranchise Houston voters, lead to skyrocketing teacher turnover, school closures, and endless [standardized testing] prep."
A national study in 2021 found that state takeovers of schools—which have also happened in cities including Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Detroit—did not improve academic performance. The 35 school districts the researchers examined "generally saw dips in English test scores," reportedChalkbeat, while "in math, there were no clear effects at all."
Schools in New Orleans and Camden, New Jersey also saw the number of teachers of color decline after state takeovers.
"This hostile takeover threatens to close schools, drive out teachers, and take away the power of local communities to elect their own leaders," said the ACLU of Texas.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement that the TEA and Abbott's government "deserves an F on how they have handled this process up to this point."
"No community engagement, no engagement with the parents, no information being provided to the students, dropping this in the middle of spring break," Turner said.
"What other resources are you bringing to the school district that's going to have a different outcome?" he added. "What the state is saying [is], 'We are going to commit to you that there will be no failing schools in HISD.' What additional resources will you be bringing to HISD?"