After a delay of more than three years, the Texas Education Agency announced it is temporarily taking over Houston Independent School District, the largest school district in the state, to address a number of ongoing problems.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who has led the TEA since 2016, ordered the takeover of HISD in 2019 after Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston’s Fifth Ward received a failing grade on the state’s evaluation of schools for seven consecutive years and a state investigation uncovered evidence of malfeasance among the board of trustees and district staff. The board and a number of teachers sued the TEA to stop the takeover, and a district judge in Travis County issued a temporary injunction against further action. In January of this year, the Texas Supreme dismissed the injunction, and HISD subsequently dropped its lawsuit, clearing the way for the appointment of a board of managers to assume control of the district.
In the letter Morath sent to the district, he cited as grounds for the takeover the failure of a district campus for five consecutive years and the persistence of issues requiring the oversight of a state conservator for more than two years. Faced with this situation, Morath explains, he is legally obligated to order the closure of the school in question or appoint a board of managers for the entire district. In an interview with ABC13 of Houston, Morath said he did not think shutting down Wheatley High School would be in the best interest of students, so he ordered the appointment of a board of managers.
Morath noted that while student performance at Wheatley High School improved last year, it was largely due to an increase in the number of graduating seniors earning a Microsoft Office Specialist Word certification, which the TEA determined does not sufficiently prepare students for a successful career and is thus no longer being used by the TEA to measure academic performance. Moreover, while the injunction was in effect, other schools have exhibited decline or been designated as perpetually failing.
In anticipation of objections to the move, Morath acknowledged that Houston ISD operates “some of the highest performing schools in the state” and that “the current Board of Trustees has made progress,” but he maintains that “systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact district students.” Morath has denied that political influence was a factor in his decision.
HISD’s own numbers appear to support Morath’s assessment.
According to a fact sheet on the HISD website, during the 2018-19 school year, 19 percent of the district’s 276 schools received a D or F from the TEA, and 12.4 percent of high school students dropped out before graduating, compared to the statewide average of 5.9 percent. In addition, 59 percent of students in Grades 3-8 were proficient in reading (compared to the statewide average of 67 percent), while 48 percent were proficient in math (compared to 61 percent statewide).
The TEA is currently taking applications for board managers, who should be residents of Houston and “believe that all children can learn and achieve at high levels when you give proper supports.”
Morath said he wants the board to accomplish three objectives, those being ending multi-year failing grades for certain schools, compliance with state and federal regulations regarding special education, and a primary focus on student achievement. Previously, the district was characterized by “chaotic board meetings marred by infighting while Board members routinely exceeded their authority, directing staff in violation of the school laws of Texas,” including efforts to skirt the Open Meetings Act and operating a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme for vendor contracts that resulted in two indictments from the FBI.
While the board of managers will make executive decisions for the district, elections will continue for the board of trustees, who will advise the board of managers in their work. Current superintendent Millard House, however, will be replaced according to law, even though Morath describes him as “a student-focused man of integrity” and praises his “commitment to the district.”
Morath said he will not make any appointments before June 1. Based on the history of school district takeovers within the state during the past twenty years, Morath predicted that a board of managers would run HISD for two to six years.
“This was extraordinarily difficult. We live in a democracy, and one of the elements of that democracy is locally-elected school boards,” Morath said. However, he explained the law left him no other choice but to intervene.
In reaction to the news, HISD Superintendent House said, “I stepped into my role understanding the obstacles we faced as a district including a looming TEA intervention. My team and I remained focused on building a framework that prioritized a high quality educational experience supported by world class talent for all students.”
“Today’s announcement does not discount the gains we have made district-wide,” he continued. “I am confident our educators and staff will continue to do the necessary work to ensure positive student outcomes at every level. For our students and families, it is education as usual, and the school year continues as normal. As we wrap up this school year, my focus will be on working with our Board of Trustees and the TEA to ensure a smooth transition without disruption to our core mission of providing an exceptional educational experience for all students.”
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), a longtime critic of HISD, supported the decision.
“I’ve watched, at best, an ineffective HISD Board of Trustee Governance for 8 years as the second longest serving member on the Senate Education Committee. A highly critical TEA report of nefarious trustees activity and a subsequent FBI investigation with multiple indictments which resulted in a plea deal with a former HISD Trustee, have concerned me greatly. Therefore, I strongly support Commissioner Mike Morath’s decision to install a Board of Managers for the HISD school district.”