HOUSTON (CN) — Houston’s mayor lashed out at state officials Wednesday over the Texas Education Agency’s purported plans to take over Houston Independent School District, a tussle set off four years ago by a struggling high school that has since improved.
Sylvester Turner, a Democrat who served in the Texas House of Representatives for 26 years before his election as Houston’s mayor, said at a City Council meeting Wednesday he has heard from state legislators the TEA plans to seize control of Houston ISD next week.
“They are saying the state intends to take over Houston ISD, replacing the entire board, replacing the superintendent and taking over the entire school district. I find that totally alarming,” Turner fumed. “HISD has 273 schools. … How do you come in and take over the largest school district in the state of Texas? How do you do that and do it successfully?”
Of HISD’s 193,727 students, 61.9% are Hispanic and 22.1% are Black. And nearly 80% of the student body are considered “economically disadvantaged.”
The dispute goes back to November 2019 when TEA Commissioner Mike Morath announced the agency would take over HISD’s board due to the poor academic performance of Phillis Wheatley High School, claiming a state law required it to intervene because Wheatley had received a failing grade in the state’s academic accountability ratings for seven years in a row.
Houston ISD sued and obtained an injunction blocking TEA from stepping in.
The legal battle made its way to the Texas Supreme Court, which vacated the injunction and remanded the case to the trial court in January, determining a state law passed in 2021 gave Morath authority to appoint a board of managers for HISD.
But TEA intervention seemed unnecessary as after a period of turmoil in its leadership, with superintendents serving on an interim basis, HISD’s board appointed Millard House superintendent in June 2021.
Under House’s leadership, the school district received a B rating from the TEA for the 2021-2022 academic year, following two years in which the agency gave no ratings on account of the pandemic.
According to the TEA, “districts or schools earn a ‘B’ (80–89) for recognized performance when they serve many students well, encouraging high academic achievement and/or appropriate academic growth for most students.”
Wheatley High School, meanwhile, has improved its performance, earning a passing C grade from TEA in in latest ratings.
Based on those assessments, Mayor Turner, a Harvard-educated lawyer, said the state should not intervene.
“In every category in which the state has rated school districts, HISD surpasses Dallas [ISD],” he said. “Are they going to take over Dallas? … And if they are going to go back and base it on the way things were in 2019 they are making an egregious mistake.”
He also complained that unlike HISD’s elected board members, managers appointed by the TEA would not be accountable to voters.
“Who are these board of managers that people keep talking about? And who is selecting them? Where is the transparency in the process?” Turner questioned at the City Council meeting.
Neither the TEA nor the HISD responded to emails and phone messages seeking comment Wednesday.
The controversy comes as Governor Greg Abbott is giving speeches at “Parent Empowerment Night” events at private Christian schools throughout the state, trying to garner support for a school choice education savings account program that would let parents use state money that would go to their child’s public school to enroll them in private schools, an initiative he maintains is about the “fundamental right parents have in choosing the best educational opportunities for their children.”
Abbott named school choice an emergency item in his State of the State speech last month, authorizing lawmakers to vote on related legislation immediately, exempt from a rule barring passage of bills during the first 60 days of Texas’ biennial regular legislative sessions. The current one started Jan. 10.
The Republican governor is disputing critics’ claims private schools lack accountability standards and his plan would reduce funding for public schools.
He is also facing headwinds from Democrats and Republican lawmakers who represent rural areas where there are few, if any, private schools.
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