School & District Management

What’s Behind Texas’ Takeover of Houston Schools

By Evie Blad — March 15, 2023 5 min read
People stand in a row outside while holding signs that say "stop takeover," "hands off our schools," and "no HISD take over."
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Texas education officials announced plans Wednesday to replace the board and superintendent of the 200,000-student Houston district, giving the state control of one of the nation’s largest school systems after years of controversy and legal battles over its authority to do so.

The move comes after the Houston district improved poor accountability ratings for some of its most struggling schools.

But state officials argued that they had legal authority to take control because of persistently poor performance at a single campus, Wheatley High School. The district has 274 schools total.

A school board has “a solemn responsibility to focus above all else” on serving all students, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath wrote in a letter to Houston Independent School District leaders Wednesday, notifying them of his plans.

“It does this by ensuring its superintendent is positioned to provide a strong set of supports for district teachers and staff who work directly with those students, not just on some of its campuses, but all of them,” he wrote. “The intervention I am ordering is focused on ensuring the Houston ISD governing team is better supporting its students.”

The move—which will give the Lonestar State’s Republican leadership a new level of authority over a diverse school system in one of its bluest cities—is sure to draw fresh national attention to debates over whether state intervention can improve school systems.

Here’s what you need to know.

Texas leaders have fought for years to take over Houston schools

Morath said he intends to leave the current school board and Superintendent Millard House II in their current positions for an interim period while he recruits a new board of managers and a new district leader, who are expected to take their positions in June.

House, who has been in his role for less than two years, said in a statement that Wednesday’s announcement “does not discount the gains we have made district-wide” during his tenure.

House has opposed state takeover, but has largely issued public statements pledging to remain “laser focused” on student success in the weeks leading up to the announcement. Other officials, including Houston Mayor Slyvester Turner, have questioned the state’s rationale for taking control of the school system.

“Because of the hard work of our students, teachers, and staff, we have lifted 40 of 50 schools off the D or F [Texas Education Agency] accountability ratings list,” House said Wednesday. “Together, with our parents, community members and leaders, we developed the district’s first comprehensive five-year strategic plan to build a better HISD.”

Despite those improvements, Morath argued that persistent problems required him to intervene. Among his reasons:

  • Houston schools have had a conservator assigned to improve operations for more than two consecutive years. The state had assigned two conservators—specially selected administrators—to help overhaul the district’s approach to identifying students for special education services, which has been a concern statewide.
  • Concerns about compliance with state and local laws regarding the education of students with disabilities.
  • “Unacceptable” state academic accountability ratings at Wheatley High School for “five consecutive years.”

Wheatley’s academic track record was the focus of years of legal action when the state first cited it to justify a 2019 takeover attempt.

Among the questions raised in litigation, the Houston Landing reports, are whether state law requires a takeover or merely allows it following five consecutive years of poor accountability ratings. Also up for debate: whether Wheatley restarted the clock on its string of poor ratings when it received a “not rated” designation in 2018, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey the previous year.

The Houston school board sued over that earlier takeover attempt, and a court granted an injunction suspending the state’s actions. But the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for the state when it vacated that injunction in January, citing changes in the state’s accountability law.

Wheatley High School received an “acceptable” rating in the 2021-22 school year, Morath acknowledged in his memo, but the state still intends to intervene.

“Even with a delay of three full years caused by legal proceedings, systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact students most in need of our collective support,” Morath said.

Controversy surrounds state takeovers of school districts

State takeovers are a controversial school improvement strategy, particularly when state leadership differs politically from that of the community targeted. In Texas, some critics suggest state intervention will be used to spur growth of charter schools and other alternatives, a common concern in other cities facing state takeovers.

While the takeover strategy dates back to the 1980s, their frequency grew in the 2010s as more states passed laws authorizing the replacement of locally elected school boards. Most recently, the Providence, R.I., school district was taken over in 2019 following a damning report that indicted layers of bureaucracy and the district’s failure to provide basic services to students, especially those learning English. Boston narrowly avoided a takeover in 2022.

Past takeovers in majority-Black districts like Detroit and Little Rock, Ark., have prompted criticism from racial justice advocates concerned about local control.

About 62 percent of HISD students are Latino, 22 percent are Black, and 10 percent are white, according to the latest district data. The community has a lower median household income and a greater percentage of students living in poverty than the state as a whole, the data show.

In a January 2022 analysis of state takeovers published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, researchers found that, for majority-Black districts, their racial makeup was more of a predictor of state takeover than academic performance.

Researchers also found takeovers led to few academic gains, citing disruption of school and district operations associated with a change in governance and strategy.

Critics of the Houston takeover cited similar concerns about race and equity Wednesday.

Of the 15 districts Texas has taken over, seven were predominantly Black and seven were majority Hispanic, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Those pushing back against the decision included the Houston Federation of Teachers and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who called the takeover a “discriminatory action.”

While some individual Houston school board members told local station KHOU that they support the move, the board as a whole said in a statement that it planned to review the notice “to determine next steps.”

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