The Dystopian Future of U.S. Public Education Is On Display in Houston
The takeover of the Houston Independent School District by GOP officials is part of a broader attack on public education—but unions and community members are fighting back.
On June 1, the state of Texas removed Elizabeth Santos, an elected school board trustee, from office and replaced her with Janette Garza Lindner, the candidate she defeated in December 2021.
The ousting was part of a larger takeover of the Houston public school system by the Republican-led Texas state government — a process that began in late 2019 and became formalized June 1 when Mike Miles, a charter school owner whose school administrator license lapsed five years ago, was installed as the new superintendent of the district by Gov. Greg Abbott along with an appointed Board of Managers.
As a result, decisions for the nearly 200,000 mostly Black and brown students in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the state’s largest, are now made entirely by Abbott’s administration, while Miles oversees day-to-day operations. Meanwhile, a team of New York-based “social impact” consultants are managing tens of thousands of professional educators, with nominal oversight by the unelected Board of Managers who can be vacated by the Abbott administration at any time.
Welcome to life in the new Houston occupied school district.
Grades and violations
In 2015, the Texas state legislature overwhelmingly passed House Bill 1842, which made it far easier for the Texas Education Agency (TEA), helmed by Abbott appointee Mike Morath, to take over a “failing” school district. The bill established a new mandate for state intervention if a single school in a district was rated as “failing” for five years in a row.
Public school districts in Texas operate as independent government entities, with their own elected boards. This new bill threatened the independence of the state’s school districts, empowering a hostile and ideologically motivated Abbott administration to set rules increasing its influence over local governance.
Since 2018, districts have been given A through F grades heavily based on state standardized tests that disadvantage schools which enroll mostly low-income students, who tend to perform lower on those tests due in part to poor housing conditions and living in poverty which can negatively impact student learning. Both the grades and criteria are established by the TEA.
Essentially, if Texas conservatives and privatizers want to take over a district, they can use shifting rationalizations and change the rules whenever they want to make it happen. And that’s just what happened when Wheatley High School, a majority Black school located in northeast Houston’s Fifth Ward, received its fifth consecutive failing grade from the TEA in 2019.
In the immediate wake of the rating, the TEA notified the school district that it planned to vacate the elected school board and take over. In response, the board of trustees and Houston Federation of Teachers sued and won twice in lower courts, arguing that the takeover effort violated the Voting Rights Act by targeting districts with large Black and Latino populations.
In 2019, a federal judge denied Houston ISD’s request for a preliminary injunction but allowed parts of the lawsuit to proceed in state court. In January, the Texas Supreme Court also ruled in favor of the TEA, ending the path for legal challenges and setting in motion the current occupation.
When the TEA first announced its plans to take over Houston ISD in 2019, the agency cited concerns over board governance as a key justification. The TEA accused school board members of having engaged in a “walking quorum,” breaking open meetings laws and other violations.
But since then, HISD has held two school board elections. All but two trustees who were serving at the time of the “dysfunctional board” accusation have either left or been replaced.
And HISD’s efforts to improve performance at Wheatley paid off — Wheatley was given a “C” rating by the TEA in 2022. The district overall maintained a B+ grade score, higher than many other large school districts, and the number of campuses that received a D or F grade dropped from 50 in the 2018-2019 school year to 10 in 2022. According to the rating system developed by the Abbott administration, HISD is improving.
Politicians and the media should have been holding this up as a success story. The largest school district in the state, serving nearly 200,000 overwhelmingly low-income students, had made real strides, coming together to address deep challenges despite an ongoing lack of funding provided by state authorities.
But instead, in February the TEA announced that it would be taking over the district.
This is the culmination of a decades-long assault on our system of local governance by corporate interests and billionaire financiers who want to blame all failures in our schools on the professionals who have devoted their lives to educating the next generation.
Over the past 20 years, billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into quick fix solutions that lean heavily on technology, management consulting and the promotion of charter schools, while devaluing the teaching profession, denying the impact of poverty on student outcomes, and undermining neighborhood public schools as a key element of American civic education.
And the new administration in Houston has already shown its commitment to repeating the mistakes of the past.
From 2010 through 2013, HISD introduced “Apollo 20.” The $60 million program was designed to implement flashy new education “reform” tactics at 20 schools, including “reconstitution” of schools. Teachers had to reapply for their jobs, the workday was lengthened and the focus of education shifted even more towards passing standardized tests. In fact, the program could not produce any sustained gains in math scores, while reading scores remained the same and enrollment dropped.
Appointed superintendent Mike Miles has already set in motion a new plan with a similar “fire your way to excellence” mentality. He has stated he will require all teachers and staff to re-apply for their jobs at 29 schools, mostly in Northeast Houston. Teachers will be required to implement a rigid, scripted curriculum and teachers will be reprimanded for deviating from it. Some teachers will be paid substantially more, but will work a longer school day. Many teachers will have one planning period per week instead of once per day. Miles plans to eliminate librarians from these schools and will outsource wraparound services.
All of this has been done with minimal, if any, consultation with parents, community groups and students, and zero engagement with the Houston Federation of Teachers and support staff.
Researchers have found no evidence that state takeovers lead to academic improvements. State takeovers frequently lead to wasteful spending and mismanagement with little improvement in student outcomes, and are overwhelmingly targeted at districts with majority Black or Latino student populations.
Like so many problems in our country, the solution to gaps in academic achievement is actually pretty simple but difficult for billionaire philanthropists to accept: equitable distribution of resources.
HISD currently has approximately $9,000 to spend per student every year — $4,000 less than the national average and far less than what is needed to address the myriad challenges faced by students experiencing the effects of poverty. In 2018, nearly 30,000 HISD students were enrolled in the Student Assistance program, which serves those who are homeless or in foster care.
The State Board of Education recently approved expansion plans for the conservative-backed Heritage Classical Academy in Northwest Houston. Considering that new superintendent Mike Miles is a founder and owner of a charter network himself, many public education advocates are justifiably concerned that HISD’s meager funding could increasingly be funneled to charter schools.
Houstonians recognize that there’s much more to this story, which is why, according to a June poll, two-thirds of area voters agree that “Parents, teachers, and the leaders closest to the community are the best situated to make choices about our schools, not unelected state bureaucrats who aren’t accountable to the voters and don’t know our community.”
In just the first two weeks under the occupation administration, public comment was limited along with public access to board meetings, a teacher was arrested for peacefully protesting a board meeting and armed police presence has grown. Meanwhile, hundreds of students, teachers and community members have come together to voice their opposition.
Over 300 community members showed up to protest the first meeting of the new Board of Managers on June 7, and frustrated teachers and parents have filled the public comment period during each subsequent gathering organized by Superintendent Miles. Community concerns are focused on the increasing centrality of high-stakes testing to school administration, and the defunding of wraparound services.
The response has been spearheaded by a broad coalition of organizations rooted in the community — Houston Federation of Teachers, Community Voices for Public Education, the Houston NAACP, the ACLU, LULAC and the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, with support from a new labor-community communications and research hub called New Economy for Working Houston. Black organizers have led the effort, recognizing that historic disinvestment in majority Black schools is likely to accelerate under the new administration. And many local elected officials have stepped up their criticism to match community outrage, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
In late June, Superintendent Miles announced that he plans to expand his radical reconstitution crusade to include over half of Houston ISD schools within the next three years. He maintains an ideological devotion to his tried and failed plan, and props it up with cherry-picked data from the pandemic years without any mention of the national trauma students have experienced.
In 2013, a wave of public school closings in Chicago sparked a labor-community movement that has reshaped the city. A similar movement is growing in Houston, led by an alliance of parents, union teachers, racial justice activists and allies fed up with the poverty-laundering reformist movement.
Even if it takes a decade to win, educators and their allies are showing they’re ready for the fight.
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Jackie Anderson is President of the Houston Federation of Teachers.
Ruth Kravetz is a Co-Founder of Houston Community Voices for Public Education.
Jay Malone is Political and Communications Director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.