Texas officials announced Wednesday a state takeover of the eighth-largest school district in the U.S. after allegations of misconduct by school trustees and chronically low academic scores at its schools.
According to The Associated Press, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath announced officials would officially gain control of the Houston Independent School District (HISD).
Morath cited a state law that mandates Texas officials to take control and argued the move is the best way to get the district back on track, according to The Houston Chronicle.
“Even with recent improvements and despite good intentions from many, Houston ISD as a system continues to allow chronically low achievement in multiple schools,” Morath said. “State intervention is necessary in several years in an attempt to shore up support for students in those schools.”
Morath sent a letter to the Houston ISD board of trustees alerting them to the takeover Wednesday morning, KPRC 2 News reported.
“The goal here is to let what is great about Houston continue to be great, but where there are places where students have for far too long gone without the sort of structure of support that they need,” Morath told KPRC 2 News. “The system of Houston ISD seems to allow campuses to go many, many years without seeing performance.”
Government officials began mobilizing to seize control of the district in 2019, after 50 out of about 300 schools within the district received D or F grades. Wheatley High School reportedly received seven consecutive unacceptable ratings and dozens of other schools in the district received D or F evaluations.
According to recent data, district-wide, only 51% of high school students were proficient in reading, and 52% were on level for math.
The failing grades triggered a state law that required schools to close or install a board of managers to replace the existing district board members, The Houston Chronicle reported.
District officials filed a lawsuit against the state, but the Texas Supreme Court blocked the case due to new education laws passed by the state legislature, which gave authority to the state to take control.
Superintendent Millard House sounded optimistic in his statement, touting the fact that 40 of those 50 schools that were struggling moved off the D and F list during his tenure.
“I stepped into my role understanding the obstacles we faced as a district, including a looming takeover,” House said, according to The Houston Chronicle. “Today’s announcement does not discount the gains we have made district-wide. I am confident our educators and staff will continue to do the necessary work to ensure positive student outcomes at every level.”
House, who was elected by the school board in 2021, will likely still receive his annual salary of approximately $350,000 until his contract expires in 2024.
Commissioner Morath applauded House’s work in the district, but due to the nature of the law, he still has to appoint a new leadership team for a clean slate.
“Ultimately, a board of managers allows Houston to completely reframe the governing team to focus on servant leadership to truly believe that the board exists to serve the staff and students, not the other way around,” Morath said. “So it’s important that we set the district leadership team up with a fresh start.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has reportedly been critical of the state takeover, accusing the state of mishandling the situation and arguing the leadership shakeup would only cause a distraction for the staff and students for the rest of the year.
“I don’t think that parents appreciate all of this stress and anxiety being put on their students when they’re getting ready to take exams,” Turner said. “I give them an F on how they managed this situation.”
Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and the Legislative Black Caucus condemned the state intervention and called it “a dark day” for the district.
Democrats, in general, have disapproved of the move, claiming it’s political. Houston is a largely Democrat-controlled city that has been at odds with state-level Republicans over a variety of issues related to education since the pandemic.
The unprecedented move from the Texas Education Agency toward HISD adds to the list of 15 other districts where state officials have appointed new leadership. Seven of those districts had a new board of managers put in place, and in most of those cases the takeover wasn’t actually related to academic issues – the majority were for financial issues.
But none have been anywhere near the size of Houston Independent.
This kind of overhaul from state governments has happened nationwide. Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Detroit have gone through state takeovers in recent years. Critics argue there is little success in improving the academic outcomes when such takeovers occur from state governments.
Texas Education Agency officials will reportedly appoint a board of managers and a superintendent to oversee the district until the end of the school year in June.