Houston, Texas — On the eve of an impending takeover of the Houston Independent School District by the Texas Education Agency, little was said on the subject Friday at the HISD State of the Schools luncheon in downtown Houston.
Superintendent Millard House II said “uncertainty looms” about the state takeover, but he focused on celebrating recent improvements at Texas’ largest school district — one with an enrollment of nearly 200,000 students. Over the past 19 months, HISD has made academic progress to reduce the number of campuses with a D or F rating from 50 to 10.
In a park outside the convention center, a louder and more energetic event organized by state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other elected officials followed the district’s fundraising event. At the press conference it was shouted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, TEA must go!” called through the crowd of about 100 people.
Parents, teachers and retired HISD employees were among the many who came out in support of their district and against a midterm change in leadership that has been in the works since 2019, when the TEA first announced plans to take over the district following allegations of misconduct by trustees and years of low academic performance at Phillis Wheatley High School — one of the district’s 276 schools.
TEA Commissioner Mike Morath told state representatives at a House Committee on Public Education meeting Tuesday that no final decision had been made. But at a Houston City Council meeting the next day, Turner said he had been told a TEA takeover could happen as early as next week. The superintendent said at an HISD board meeting Thursday that the district has not received an official notification from the TEA.
SEE ALSO: ‘Total Annihilation’: Mayor Turner Says HISD Takeover by Texas Education Agency Imminent
Arnetta Murray, currently a special education teacher of 15 years at West Briar Middle School, said the possibility of a takeover is all she and other teachers can talk about in the teachers’ lounge.
They know that school district takeovers by state agencies have led to layoffs in the past. Murray also worries about the future of special education students if school vouchers were to be implemented in the city. Gov. Greg Abbott and other political leaders this legislative session are proposing “school choice” bills and other policies that would allow parents to opt out of their local school districts and receive state money to educate their children elsewhere.
Murray said she took half her day off work to hear what lawmakers have to say about the issue. Wearing the school’s colors of navy and yellow on her shirt and eyelids, she held a handwritten “NO TEA” sign as lawmakers called all teachers to the front of the event for a group photo.
“As an educator at HISD, it’s a slap in the face for them to even want to do a TEA takeover because we’re working so hard with less resources,” Murray said. “Why are you doing this now? We’re getting ready for STAAR. We’re already stressed.”
After the state announced plans to take over the district in 2019, HISD sued, and in 2020 a Travis County district judge stopped Morath’s plan by issuing a temporary injunction. The case eventually reached the Texas Supreme Court, where the agency’s lawyers argued last year that a 2021 law — which took effect after the case was first brought to court — opens up a state takeover. The law allows the TEA commissioner to replace a school board and its superintendent if one of the schools receives five consecutive failing years.
The Texas Supreme Court threw out the injunction in January, clearing the way for the TEA to put in place new school board members, who could then vote to end the lawsuit. The court formalized its decision on Wednesday afternoon.
Houston parent Zachary Foreman says the takeover, which comes in the middle of the spring semester, is an unnecessary disruption after students have already had to go through months of online learning due to COVID-19 safety protocols.
SEE ALSO: Houston ISD superintendent says little about potential TEA takeover timeline
Foreman said he became an organizer with Houston Community Voices for Public Education a year after his first child was born because he wanted to have a say in the education she would receive.
He also does it to help inform parents in his neighborhood who can’t take time off from work. He has read that state takeovers in other districts have led to school closings and no improvements in test scores.
“When the state takes over, we don’t get to elect a board,” Foreman said. “For me, it’s not just the negative educational consequences, it’s also like everyday democratic ideas. I pay taxes, I live in this city. I should have a say in my child’s school.”
Many of the participants lamented the timing of the proposed takeover, citing improvements in the district’s ratings in the four years since TEA announced plans to take over the district and HISD sued in response. Ninety-four percent of HISD schools now receive a grade of A, B or C.
Rep. Jarvis Johnson said while the district failed at one point, he questions why the state is taking action now.
“When you had 100 schools that were Ds and Fs, guess what, where was the governor, where was the TEA? Nobody was around,” Johnson said. “But now that they’ve righted the ship, the course is right, now you suddenly want to come in and take it over for what reason? Takeovers have never worked.”
Patricia Allen is a retired HISD employee and a union organizer with the Houston Educational Support Personnel, an organization representing the district’s workers.
She said despite the difficult reputation, she is still proud to have many of her grandchildren enrolled in the district. “There are so many victories, not sacrifices. People who went to HISD who are living success stories today,” Allen said. “So you can’t tell me they’re getting inadequate education.”
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