Texas officials announced Wednesday that they would take over the Houston public school district, the eighth-largest in the United States, deepening existing tensions between local Democratic leaders and the Republican-majority statehouse.
In a letter to the superintendent and board members of the Houston Independent School District (HISD), Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the recipients of the letter would be replaced with a new superintendent and board selected by the Texas Education Authority (TEA) and who will be officially installed on June 1st.
Morath claims the board has failed to improve student performance in Houston, citing Wheatley High School as an example, which received a failing grade from the TEA in 2019. In addition, Morath accuses the board of “holding chaotic board meetings marred by infighting,” adding that an investigation has found “multiple violations of law in the district.”
“The district’s approach to assisting students with disabilities continues to violate state and federal laws,” Morath wrote, citing “significant systemic compliance issues, including an ongoing inability to provide special education to students without delay.”
Representatives from the Democratic states called the takeover “tragic” and “undignified” in a press conference after the announcement in the morning:
“Today is a very — and I stress very — dark day for HISD and the many Black and Brown students and communities that are within HISD,” said Rep. Ron Reynolds, chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, who stressed the takeover is coming even after the proven “continued exemplary growth” in the last five years.
“To still take over the district now is absolutely wrong,” Reynolds said, adding that students and teachers would “pay the price.”
The ACLU condemned the takeover, writing on Twitter that the “hostile takeover threatens to close schools, evict teachers and deprive local communities of the power to elect their own leaders.” in a city already plagued by teacher shortages.
“The state takeover of HISD is not about public education — it is about political control of a 90 percent Black and Brown student body in one of the most diverse cities in the country. And it’s not what our students and teachers need,” the ACLU continued.
The Texas State Teachers Association also opposed the takeover in a statement posted to Facebook, which it called “an injustice to students and educators.”
“The Commissioner has no accountability to HISD parents or taxpayers,” wrote the Teachers Association of Morath. “He is answerable only to Gov. Greg Abbott, whose top education priority is taking millions of dollars in taxpayer money from HISD and other public school districts and funneling it to unregulated private schools. Abbott is less interested in supporting HISD and other public schools than he is in privatizing them.”
The Teachers Association also notes that the adoption is due in part to students’ performance on a standardized test called STARR, which they say “is not—and never was—an accurate measure of student progress.”
While Houston’s student progress has indeed stalled in the wake of the pandemic, this trend is not specific to the city, as performance at schools across the country is struggling to recover to 2019 data.
In 2022, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that math and reading test scores fell nationwide after the pandemic. Fourth- and eighth-graders’ scores in both categories fell significantly from their 2019 peers, with math scores recording the largest decline since the first assessments in 1990 and reading scores the lowest in three decades.