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Civil rights groups ask feds to look into Texas takeover of Houston schools

Of 15 school districts the Texas Education Agency has taken control of or threatened to, all but one was majority-Black or Latino, the groups told the Justice Department.

HOUSTON (CN) — Accusing the Texas Education Agency of racial discrimination in its decision to seize control of Houston schools, civil rights organizations on Friday asked the Justice Department to investigate.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath announced March 15 the agency would appoint a board of managers starting in June to replace Houston Independent School District’s nine elected trustees and install a new superintendent.

Morath was a no-show at four community meetings the TEA held over the past two weeks to explain the intervention and process of selecting managers, all of whom, Morath has said, will be Houston residents.

TEA Deputy Commissioner Alejandro Delgado led the meetings and frustrated parents booed and heckled him, complaining of Morath’s absence and cutting two of his presentations short.

The ACLU of Texas, Houston branches of the NAACP and League of United Latin American Citizens and four parents of Houston ISD students sent a letter to a Justice Department official Friday requesting an investigation of TEA for possible violations of the Voting Rights Act and Constitution.

More than 90% of HISD’s 193,727 students are Black, Hispanic, Asian or other racial minorities and Hispanic and Black residents account for 44.5% and 22.6% of Houston's population, respectively, according to U.S. Census data.

The civil rights organizations say the TEA’s latest move is consistent with its history of targeting minority-majority school districts.

Of 15 school districts for which the TEA has replaced elected trustees with a board of managers or threatened to, all but one was majority-Black or Latino, the groups say in their letter.

“The TEA’s extraordinary efforts to justify imposing a board of managers are not reflected in its treatment of districts with a majority of white students and white voters. Instead, the TEA is continuing its pattern of removing locally elected trustees only in school districts with students of color and voters of color. This intentional and purposeful discrimination violates the 14th and 15th Amendments,” the letter reads.

Morath first unveiled TEA’s plans to take over HISD’s board in November 2019, citing infighting among the district’s trustees and the perennial poor academic performance of Wheatley High School.

Houston ISD sued and won an injunction blocking TEA from intervening, but its board voted to end the litigation after the Texas Supreme Court in January ruled that a state law passed in 2021 gave Morath authority to appoint managers for the district.

Morath claims his hands are tied and state law requires TEA to step in because Wheatley received a failing grade in the state’s academic accountability ratings for seven years in a row, even though the high school got an acceptable C rating for 2021-2022 school year.

But the civil rights groups argue Morath is relying on stale data and misinterpreting the Texas Education Code.

“Wheatley’s acceptable rating in 2022 should effectively reset the clock and the TEA is not, as Commissioner Morath asserts, required to take unprecedented action based on ratings that are nearly four years old,” they claim.

The complainants also note that Houston ISD, the state’s largest district with 273 schools, got a B grade, scoring 88 out of 100, in its latest rating by the TEA.

“This score was higher than hundreds of other school districts in the state,” their letter states. “Notably, there were at least 40 school districts in Texas with less than 50% students of color, where the school district received a ‘C’ or did not receive an acceptable rating in 2022. The TEA is not appointing a board of managers in any of those school districts.”

HISD has nine trustees, including four Black people and three Hispanics. They are elected by voters in different geographic zones called single-member districts. Single-member means only residents of the district can vote for candidates, as opposed to at-large positions that are filled by citywide votes.

At least five of the trustee districts have a heavily majority-minority voting population that elects their preferred candidate, according to the civil rights groups.

They claim TEA is also violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by denying Houston voters of color a chance to elect their representatives of choice, and instead installing a board of managers who will not be accountable to voters.

“The state takeover is not about public education but about political control of an almost entirely Black and brown student body in one of the country's most diverse cities,” ACLU of Texas attorney Ashley Harris said in a statement.

“This hostile takeover strips power from Houston voters of color by replacing the democratically elected school district trustees with a board of managers handpicked by the commissioner,” she added.

University of Houston law professor Emily Berman said the Voting Rights Act arguments here are unusual because typical Section 2 claims involve allegations of racial gerrymandering.

"Usually it’ll be something like you drew the line in such a way as to divide this Latino community between districts one and two, so they don’t have enough votes to elect the representative of their choice in either of those two districts," she explained in an interview. "But if they are able to show that there’s racial animus involved in spurring the takeover then it would certainly apply."

She said she wouldn't be surprised if HISD's board members file a lawsuit over their ouster but they may be waiting until it occurs because "you have to have suffered an injury before you can sue."

Categories:Civil Rights, Education, Government, Regional

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