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Some of the facts about the state of Texas taking control of the Houston Independent School District make the decision seem baffling and unfair.
- None of the schools in Houston ISD got a failing grade in the most recent state assessment, although a number of schools were not given a rating. The district as a whole, which is the largest in the state, got a “B.” There are multiple districts in the state that got worse scores.
- The one school that set off the yearslong legal battle over the takeover, Wheatley High School, which had failed for multiple years leading up to 2019, got a “C” grade from the state in the most recent assessment.
- The superintendent, who will be replaced as part of the takeover, has overseen marked improvement, and even the Texas official finalizing the takeover has praised him.
- Houston voters already replaced most of the school board that was in office when the school got failing grades.
Rather than reward the improvement, however, the state is going ahead with the takeover. The state education commissioner, Mike Morath, says he has to follow the state law and replace the superintendent and board that weren’t there when the high school was failing from 2011 through 2019.
Bottom line: The state is taking over a district because of a school that is no longer failing, replacing the superintendent who improved things and an elected board of trustees that was largely not in office when the schools were failing.
CNN’s detailed report includes a good roundup of frustration among parents and local officials.
Taking power from local governments
From afar, the Houston takeover feeds two national, political narratives:
- Republican lawmakers are keen to wrest the power of cities away from locally elected representatives.
- Propping up so-called “parental rights,” particularly where it comes to school districts and teachers unions, is evolving into a major plank of the national Republican platform.
On that first point, most of the recent evidence is focused on criminal justice reform. Georgia, for instance, is eyeing a new commission that could defrock local prosecutors.
Read more about this from CNN’s Ron Brownstein, who wrote this week that crime is igniting new conflicts between red states and blue cities.
Among his pieces of evidence: Mississippi’s Republican-controlled legislature wants to take over policing in Jackson from the people who live there. Republican governors in two states beyond Georgia have sought to remove local prosecutors.
I would add that the Republican-controlled House’s rejection of Washington, DC’s effort to rewrite its criminal code also falls in this category. And President Joe Biden’s about-face to acquiesce to the effort and take power from the District of Columbia is proof that this demonization of big city governments is powerful politics.
Governor promises this is not about ‘parental empowerment’
On the second point, about parental rights, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the takeover of the Houston Independent School District has nothing to do with it.
“Some have suggested this will be used for parental empowerment and things like that,” Abbott said, according to KHOU, a CNN affiliate. “All of that is completely separate from what’s happening with HISD.”
Despite the state education department giving Houston passing grades, Abbott said the focus with the takeover will be charting a “course so that HISD will no longer be failing their students.”
More complicated than the national narratives
Some of the longer and more thoughtful coverage on this subject suggests a more complicated story than the one that feeds into the national narratives.
Wheatley High School, the school that caused the takeover because of its years of failing grades until 2019, began as a segregated high school. Today, Wheatley is almost entirely economically disadvantaged (95.4% of students) and almost all the students are Black and Hispanic.
While the school did receive a passing grade from the state in the last assessment, it is far from high achieving. Only about a quarter of students are at or above grade level in standardized testing for all subjects.
Houston Public Media links to comments by state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat and a Wheatley High School graduate who says he, not Republican lawmakers or Abbott, was the person who suggested the state be required to take over districts with schools that fail for five straight years.
Dutton said he was heartbroken at the decline of the school.
“I still think that we’ve got to fix these schools,” he said. “That is the question I think all of us face up here. … What do we do to improve student outcomes?”
Dutton still supports the takeover even though Wheatley and the district have shown improvement.
Whether a takeover will help those outcomes is unclear. CNN’s larger report on the Houston situation noted studies that suggest no concrete evidence that these types of takeovers ultimately help student outcomes. Perhaps more troubling is that schools with larger proportions of minority students are taken over more often.