Teachers Sues Texas Agency Over School Board Takeover Plan

SAN ANTONIO (CN) – A Houston teachers union, making claims of racial discrimination, asked a federal judge Tuesday to block the Texas Education Agency from replacing their school district’s elected board of trustees with a handpicked board of managers. 

The Houston Federation of Teachers and Texas Federation of Teachers brought the federal complaint in San Antonio against the Texas Education Agency and its Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday.

The lawsuit stems from Morath’s Nov. 6 announcement the Texas Education Agency would take over the Houston Independent School District’s board because of the dismal academic performance of Wheatley High School.

Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston, Texas. (WhisperToMe via Wikipedia).

The school, in Houston’s Fifth Ward, a historically black neighborhood, has 966 students – 52% of them are black and 46% are Latino, according to the Texas Tribune. 

The Texas Education Agency says a 2015 state law requires that it intervene because Wheatley has received a failing grade in the state’s academic accountability ratings for seven years in a row.

But the teachers say in their lawsuit that despite Wheatley’s poor performance, the Texas Education Agency gave HISD, the state’s largest school district with 210,000 students at 280 campuses, an overall B academic rating in 2019.

The teachers say there’s a racial component to the Texas Education Agency’s takeover because HISD’s student demographics are “61.84% Hispanic, 24.02% African American, 8.7% White, and 4.05% Asian” and, “Currently, HISD is represented by 9 trustees, 8 of whom are people of color. All are women.”

According to the complaint, the agency has shown a pattern of targeting school districts in which most of the students are minorities: “Since 2008, 13 of the 14 school districts targeted by TEA for takeover were minority school districts.”

The school districts have rarely performed better under a TEA-appointed board of managers, the teachers unions say.

The unions are represented by Martin Golando with Garza Golando Moran of San Antonio. He did not respond Tuesday evening to a request for comment on the lawsuit, nor did the Texas Education Agency.

Hundreds of Houston residents have applied for the board of managers and the Texas Education Agency had planned to replace HISD’s trustees this spring, the Houston Chronicle reported

But a state judge in Austin granted the school district a temporary injunction blocking the takeover in January. The Texas Education Agency appealed and a decision on whether the injunction is justified could take months.

In their federal lawsuit, the teachers unions are seeking their own injunction as a backstop should the state courts approve TEA’s takeover of Houston schools.

The teachers claim the agency is violating the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments’ protections against racial discrimination because replacing the board of trustees would deprive black and Latino voters in HISD’s nine single-member voting districts, in which only residents of the districts can vote, of voting for their preferred candidates.

“Out of nine districts, six are heavily majority-minority, each electing the preferred choice of the minority voters in those districts. Out of the remaining three districts, only one is an Anglo majority district,” the complaint states. 

The teachers claim the Texas Education Agency’s intrusion into the school district’s affairs is just the latest in a long history of racial conflict for the district. They say it took HISD nearly 30 years to desegregate its schools after the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in its 1956 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. 

They also claim the Texas Education Agency has a “pro-charter school agenda” and it launched its investigation of Houston ISD, leading to the decision to oust the school board because  the district’s board in December 2018 voted down a proposal to cede control of some failing schools to a charter school operator. 

“The real reason that TEA has aggressively intervened into the governance of HISD is two-fold,” the lawsuit states.

“First, the HISD trustees did not rubberstamp TEA’s preferred education policy, the use of in-district charter schools with a mixed track record of student achievement. Second, the decision to reject this privatization initiative was made by people of color and their elected leaders,” it continues.

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