Answer Sheet: The Real Story Behind the State Takeover of Houston Public Schools
The administration of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced this month that the state was taking over the public school district in Houston even though the Texas Education Agency last year gave the district a “B” rating. The district, the eighth-largest in the country, has nearly 200,000 students, the overwhelming majority of them Black or Hispanic, and opposition to the move in the city, which votes Democratic, has been strong.
Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath said the takeover was necessary because of the poor performance of some schools in the district — even though most of the troubled schools have made significant progress recently.
Here is the real story of the takeover, written by Carol Burris, an award-winning former New York school principal who is executive director of the Network for Public Education. The nonprofit alliance of organizations advocates the improvement of public education and sees charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — as part of a movement to privatize public education.
By Carol Burris
Houston parents, teachers, and community leaders are protesting the decision by Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath to take over the Houston Independent School District. Some see the takeover as grounded in racism and retribution; others as big-government intrusion.
For Houston mom Kourtney Revels, the decision represents a hypocritical dismissal of parents by Gov. Greg Abbott (R). “How can Governor Abbott pretend to support parent empowerment and rights when he has just taken away the rights of over 200,000 parents in Houston ISD against their will and has not listened to our concerns or our voice?” she asked.
The takeover is the latest move in a long list of actions by Abbott’s administration to attack public school districts and expand privatized alternatives, including poorly regulated charter schools and now a proposed voucher program that would use public money for private and religious education. And critics see them all as connected.
State Rep. Ron Reynolds, a Houston Democrat, told the Houston Chronicle, that the takeover of the Houston district is part of Abbott’s attempt “to push” vouchers and charter schools, and to “promote and perpetuate the things that Governor Abbott believes and hears about, and that obviously isn’t diversity, equity and inclusion.”
The first takeover forum sponsored by the Texas Education Agency, which Morath leads, was described in the Houston Chronicle as “emotional and chaotic.” This week, the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice is leading a protest march before another TEA hearing. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D), who represents the city, has asked the Biden administration to open a civil rights investigation into the takeover.
The Houston Independent School District is Texas’s largest school district, with 284 schools and almost 200,000 students. It is also the eighth-largest district in the nation. Eight in 10 students come from economically disadvantaged families, and more than 1 in 3 students are not proficient in English. Fewer than 10 percent of the students are White.
The first attempted takeover of HISD by Morath was in 2019. The rationale for the takeover was school board misconduct and the seven negative ratings of Phillis Wheatley High School, one of the district’s 284 schools. Wheatley had been rated “academically acceptable” almost every other year until the YES Prep charter school opened nearby in 2011. During the 2021-2022 school year, Wheatley served 10 times as many Black students and more than twice as many students with disabilities as YES Prep, located just a five-minute drive away.
The district went to court to stop the takeover, and the debate wove through the courts until the Texas Supreme Court gave the green light for the takeover in January.
Almost four years have passed since the first takeover attempt, and the district has made impressive strides. The electorate replaced the 2019 school board, and a highly respected superintendent, Millard House, was appointed.
By every objective measure, the district is on a positive trajectory. The district is B-rated, and in less than two years, 40 of 50 Houston schools that had previously received a grade of D or F received a grade of C or better. Wheatley High School’s grade, the school that triggered that 2019 takeover attempt, moved from an F to a C, just two points from a B rating.
While there is a law that triggers a TEA response when a school repeatedly fails, the state Supreme Court did not mandate the takeover of the district. Under Texas law, Morath had two options — close the school or take over the district by appointing a new Board of Managers and a superintendent. He chose to strip local control. For those who have followed the decisions of Morath, his choice, the harsher of the two, comes as no surprise.
Mike Morath and charter schools
Mike Morath, a former software developer, was appointed education commissioner by Abbott in 2015. Morath had served a short stint on the Dallas school board, proposing that the public school district become a home-rule charter system, thus eliminating the school board and replacing it will a board appointed by then-Mayor Mike Rawlings, the former chief executive of Pizza Hut. Transformation into a charter system would also eliminate the rights and protections of Dallas teachers, making it easier to fire staff at will.
Morath and the mayor were supported in their quest to privatize the Dallas school system by a group ironically called Support Our Public Schools. While many of its donors remained anonymous, one did not — Houston billionaire John Arnold. Morath admitted encouraging the development of Support Our Public Schools and soliciting Arnold’s help in founding the organization.
Arnold, a former Enron executive and Houston resident, is a major donor and board member of the City Fund, a national nonprofit that believes in disruptive change and “nonprofit governing structures” for schools rather than traditional school boards. The City Fund touts New Orleans as the greatest school reform success. Arnold is joined on the board of the City Fund by billionaire and former Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who has blamed public school woes on elected school boards and said 90 percent of all students should be in charter schools.
The plot to turn the Dallas school system into a charter system fizzled by January 2015. In December of that year, Abbott plucked Morath from the school board to become Texas education commissioner based on his record as a “change-agent.”
As commissioner, Morath has unilaterally approved charter schools at what many consider to be an alarming rate. Patti Everitt is a Texas education policy consultant who closely follows the decisions of the Texas Education Agency. Everitt noted that Morath “has the sole authority to approve an unlimited number of new charter campuses in Texas — without general public notice, no community meeting, and no vote by any democratic entity.” According to Everitt, he has used this power more frequently than his predecessors. “Since Mike Morath became Commissioner, data from TEA shows that he has approved 75 percent of all requests from existing charter operators to open new campuses, a total of 547 new campuses across the state,” she said.
In 2021, according to Everitt, Morath approved 11 new campuses for International Leadership of Texas Charter Schools, even though 28 percent of the chain’s schools had received D or F grades in prior ratings.
Georgina Cecilia Pérez served two terms on the Texas State Board of Education, from 2017 to 2022. During that time, she observed the Texas Education Agency up close. A 2017 state law provides financial incentives for districts to partner with open-enrollment charter schools, institutions of higher education, nonprofit organizations or government entities. She said that several charter partnerships with the Houston school district have been in the works waiting for the state takeover. She predicts Morath will approve them, “with no public vote.”
Abbott, Morath, and vouchers
Few were surprised this year when Abbott declared that establishing an Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher program would be one of his highest priorities this legislative session. ESA vouchers, the most controversial of all voucher programs, provide substantial taxpayer dollars, through an account or via a debit card, to private school and home-school parents to spend on educational services. Eight states presently have ESA vouchers, with three new programs in Arkansas, Iowa and Utah approved to begin in coming academic years. Other legislatures in red states, notably New Hampshire and Florida, are pushing for ESA program expansion.
Abbott had been reluctant to embrace vouchers — possibly because of a lot of opposition in Texas, especially in rural areas — causing some to speculate that his newly expressed support for them is linked to presidential ambitions. School choice is a pet cause of one potential rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Two voucher bills are now weaving their way through the Texas Senate. S.B. 8 would give families a voucher of $8,000 per child a year and institute a parents’ “bill of rights” that allows parents to review public school curriculums through parent portals. A second bill, S.B. 176, would give private school and home-school families a $10,000-per-child annual voucher. Although Abbott has not endorsed either bill, he has made it clear that he supports a universal voucher program, promoting universal vouchers in speeches at some of the state’s most expensive private Christian schools.
Last year, Morath gave tacit support for vouchers, claiming that “there is no evidence” that vouchers would reduce public school funding. In February 2023, however, when questioned during a state Senate hearing, the commissioner admitted that voucher programs could have a negative fiscal impact on public schools.
That same month, his second-in-command, Deputy Commissioner Steve Lecholop, encouraged an unhappy parent from the Joshua Independent School District to work with the governor’s speechwriter to promote vouchers, saying it would be a great way to “stick it to” the school district.
The lack of success of district takeovers
Regardless of Abbott’s and Morath’s ultimate objective — whether it be flipping some or all of Houston’s public schools to charters — research on state takeovers has consistently shown that state takeovers nearly always occur in majority-minority districts and rarely improve student achievement. Student results in takeover districts, with only a few exceptions, have remained the same or decreased. That was the conclusion of a comprehensive cross-state study published in 2021. The study’s authors, Beth Schueler of the University of Virginia and Joshua Bleiberg of Brown University found “no evidence that takeover generates academic benefits.”
This intervention does not help students, and it mutes community voices, undermines democracy in Black and Hispanic communities, and pushes charter schools and other privatized alternatives to democratically governed schools.
An example is the takeover of Philadelphia’s public schools in 2001. Then-Gov. Tom Ridge (R) hired Edison Learning, a for-profit management company led by Chris Whittle, to study the district at the cost of $2 million. Edison Learning made a recommendation that it play a significant role in the reform and proposed running up to 70 schools. After community outrage, the number was reduced to 20. A few years later, the number of managed schools increased to 22. It was not long, however, before Edison Learning and the district were embroiled in a lawsuit concerning liability damages after a student was sexually assaulted in an Edison-operated school. By 2008, all for-profit management companies, including Edison, were gone. By 2017, the state takeover experiment ended.
Retired teacher Karel Kilimnik of Philadelphia had a first-row seat. She taught at a school taken over by the for-profit management company called Victory Co., which ran six schools under the School Reform Commission. The Reform Commission “promised academic and financial improvements that failed to materialize over their 16 years of control,” Kilimnik said. “Instead of improving the district, they opened the door to privatization and charter expansion and laid out the welcome mat for graduates of the uncertified Broad Superintendents Academy. They paved the way for the doomsday budget resulting in massive layoffs, larger class sizes, and the elimination of art and music.”
In his 2017 book, “Takeover,” New York University professor Domingo Morel concluded that, based on his extensive research, state takeovers are driven more by the desire of state actors to take political control away from Black and Hispanic communities than about school improvement. Recently in the Conversation, Morel described the seizure of the Houston school district as motivated by a need by the Republican establishment to thwart the growing empowerment of Black and Latinos as their numbers increase in Texas.
“The Houston public school system is not failing,” Morel said. “Rather, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Education Commissioner Mike Morath, and the Republican state legislature are manufacturing an education crisis to prevent people of color in Houston from exercising their citizenship rights and seizing political power.”
Allison Newport, a Houston mother of two Houston public school elementary students, agrees. “The commissioner should be congratulating Houston ISD and Wheatley High School for such incredible improvement in performance instead of punishing the students, parents, and teachers who worked so hard to make it happen.”
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