The Biden administration is being asked to open a civil rights investigation into Wednesday’s decision by the Texas Education Agency to stage a state takeover of Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest and most diverse system whose school board was often at odds with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat who represents parts of Harris County, including most of Houston, called for the Biden administration to investigate the takeover, telling U.S. News in an interview that her office, along with the offices of Democratic state legislators in Austin, have sent reams of data and information to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which is in the process of reviewing the material.
“I’m just hoping for a good outcome and that they will step in to investigate whether or not this has been appropriately acquired,” she says.
“I want the Department of Education to investigate, based on questions of equal protection of law and due process, whether or not there is discrimination and whether or not there is any way that there can be a resolution with the state working with the local school district without completely stripping the local school board.”
Commissioner Mike Morath announced Wednesday that a new board of managers will take control of the 195,000-student district no later than June 1 and that he plans to appoint a new superintendent in the coming weeks. In a letter to district leaders, Morath cited five years of poor academic performance at a single high school and the need to appoint a conservator for two consecutive years to ensure improvements as the reasons for his decision.
The announcement comes after a years-long standoff between Houston school leaders and the Abbott administration, which has been trying to wrest control of the district since 2019. A series of complicated and testy legal battles ensued over the reading of a state law that outlines the conditions necessary to allow for a takeover – an impasse that ultimately came to a close in January when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Morath was complying with the law by intervening.
Editorial Cartoons on Education
The law was authored in 2015 by state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat, and aimed to establish a tighter accountability system for some of the poorest performing schools in Houston and prod local leaders to take more aggressive action to fix them.
While Morath acknowledged the strides made by Houston schools over the last five years and noted that the district operates some of the highest performing schools in the state, he said in the letter outlining the decision that persistent academic problems exist, and he lamented the district’s approach to supporting students with disabilities, which he said violates state and federal law.
“But district procedures have also allowed it to operate schools where the support provided to students is not adequate,” he wrote. “The governing body of a school system bears ultimate responsibility for the outcomes of all students. While the current Board of Trustees has made progress, systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact district students.”
But district leaders, teachers, parents, community members and civil rights activists are telling a much different story – a story rooted in politics, racism and what could be the most aggressive retribution to date of an urban school district that refuses to go along with a Republican governor’s culture war playbook.
Houston Independent School District is the eighth largest school system in the country, where 62% of students are Hispanic, 22% are Black and 10% are white, according to the district’s enrollment data. And for families who send their children to its 274 schools, roughly 80% are economically disadvantaged.
Like many urban districts that face similar and often intractable challenges, Houston schools have been plagued by a combination of poor performance, major setbacks due to Gulf Coast hurricanes and poor infrastructure – and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though Texas isn’t known for its outstanding education systems – in fact, it’s often pointed to by policy experts as one of the least educated states in the country and one that invests the least in its schools – Houston had been making noticeable gains. In the last two years, it lifted 40 of 50 schools off the D or F accountability rating list compiled by the Texas Education Agency. The state even gave Houston schools a B grade in its most recent evaluation of the district, and the school Morath fingered for triggering the takeover received a C grade in its most recent assessment by the state.
“It begs to be asked, why is TEA taking over a school district that it gives a B grade based on the issue of one high school out of 20 plus high schools that at one time had a failing grade but now has a C grade,” asks Bishop James Dixon, head of the NAACP chapter in Houston and pastor of The Community of Faith Church in Houston. “What is the motivation?”
Without skipping a beat, he answers his own question: “One thing we understand is that Houston ISD and Houston and Harris County have been voting Democrat. So this seems to be a political power grab by our Republican governor and by the conservative-controlled TEA. If we cannot control HISD and the county through voting, then we have to use unscrupulous means and methodology by which we can regain control. That’s what this is really all about.”
Indeed, Houston voters have consistently backed Democrats for more than a decade, and, as it stands, the majority of the city’s elected officials are Democrats, including its school board members, who are also majority Black and Hispanic.
That hasn’t sat well with Abbott, who’s been in a yearslong race with other Republican governors in exerting new authority over the public school system in the name of parental rights.
Amid the GOP race to ban critical race theory – the esoteric, graduate-level academic inquiry that has become an umbrella term for teaching history that emphasizes institutional inequity – Aboott was one of the first governors to sign a law that details how teachers can talk about current events and America’s history of racism in the classroom. Later, he was one of the first to sign a law that bars transgender girls from competing in school sports.
He’s pushed school districts to pull books from their shelves that center on LGBTQ issues and pledged to give parents even more rights when it comes to their children’s education – even though a “Parents Rights and Responsibilities” code is already enshrined in state law and gives parents significant control over their child’s education. Most recently, he threw his support behind a bill that would establish education savings accounts to help families who opt out of public school afford tuition at private schools and other education expenses.
“Many dots are connected to this action – critical race theory, DEI, controlling the content of classrooms as it relates to cultural education. All of this is connected,” Dixon says. “I think the public has not yet understood how massive the design is in the war against minority culture and especially African Americans and Latinos. I don’t think we understand how intricate the playbook is that’s being worked on by these operatives.”
Education Policy or Election Politics?
It’s a playbook that’s unfurling in real time in Republican-controlled states across the country as governors pitch sweeping K-12 overhauls seizing on the parental education movement – overhauls that go well beyond simply mandating what parents can know and say. And the strategy is set to continue in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, where GOP presidential hopefuls have already begun jockeying to control the space.
“This is a textbook example of a general trend which is of education politics broadly getting more integrated with and tied up with general party politics,’ says Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education policy at Columbia University’s Teacher College.
In decades past, battle lines were drawn around things like accountability standards, assessments, teacher evaluations and other education-specific issues. But that’s no longer the case.
“Right now it’s really hard to separate out what’s going on in Houston,” Henig says, “from a general battle between conservative state legislatures and governors and blue cities – battles over election laws and its implementation, battles over abortions, battles over sanctuary cities.
“The real story here isn’t about the education performance in Houston or its capacity per se,” he says. “It’s about the fact that we’re polarized so politically in a partisan way and in many states that partisan polarization takes the form of red states, blue cities.”
For years, red states have faced divisions between the conservatives routinely elected to statewide office and the liberals who overwhelmingly control their cities. In the face of recent conflicts over abortion, some urban office-holders have said they would not enforce restrictions imposed by states. During the pandemic, governors in some red states not only eschewed the mask and vaccine requirements passed by cities but imposed orders forbidding them from adopting new restrictions.
While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has perfected the craft of punishing districts for thwarting his authority – most notably by backing dozens of conservative school board candidates across Florida during the midterms who are now purging superintendents and other educational leaders who enforced COVID-19 mandates – not many others have gone to such lengths.
Abbott’s move – one with roots that predate the pandemic and ensuing culture war-palooza – is perhaps the most aggressive to date. But Oklahoma and Tennessee are considering declining federal education funding for instruction that state officials oppose, particularly about race and gender issues. And there’s little to discourage Republican leaders in other states.
“There is really little to be lost by state legislatures and governors in attacking cities and using this rhetoric,” Henig says. “They look over to Virginia and see Glenn Youngkin and to Florida and see Ron DeSantis and they say, ‘What price do I pay for holding up the cities as examples of woke policies, as an example of the excess of liberalism, as an example of the expansion of social ills like crime?’ And it’s tied into a nice package with those other let’s-point-the-finger-at-blue-cities issues.”
Jackson Lee says that she’d like the state to give Houston schools a two-year window to show continued improvement.
“This is a death knell,” she says of Morath’s decision to take over the district. “And there is no other option in the mind of the commissioner than to shut down the schools and be taken over by the board of managers. The board of managers doesn’t have anyone else that they are responsible to than the commissioner. They are not responsible to parents, they are not responsible to school boards, they are not responsible to teachers and they’re not responsible to children. Who are they responsible to? They’re not responsible to taxpayers.”
She also laments the readiness of the state to effectively intervene and drive academic improvement in a school district the size of Houston, by far the largest and most diverse in the state.
“This is a sad state of affairs,” she says. “You cannot take over a district this large and think that you’re going to be competent in managing it.”
“If they’re committed to public education, then the Biden administration needs to stand up and begin to investigate,” Jackson Lee says. “I can’t ask them to make a judgment before they investigate, but come down here and see if this is the appropriate process to utilize for protecting these school children.”