The Washington Post

Tex. agency to take over Houston school district


In a controvers­ial and aggressive move, the Texas Education Agency will take over management of the Houston Independen­t School District, the state’s largest, following poor ratings for at least 50 schools in the system and a four-year legal battle.

Agency Commission­er Mike Morath wrote a letter to the Houston district’s board of trustees Wednesday morning announcing the takeover, which will include the appointmen­t of a new superinten­dent and a board of managers to replace current trustees, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Washington Post. The appointmen­ts will not take effect until June 1, per the letter.

“Ultimately, what caused Houston to come across this threshold was [that] they operate a number of campuses that for years have lacked the necessary structural support from the district such that they see chronic low performanc­e,” Morath said in an interview Wednesday. “A board of managers of Houstonian­s is being appointed to serve students as effectivel­y as possible and to be laser focused on meeting the needs of kids.”

Millard House II, superinten­dent of the Houston district, wrote in a statement to The Post that he took the job in 2021 fully understand­ing that a state takeover might be in the offing.

“For our students and families, it is education as usual, and the school year continues as normal,” House wrote. “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.”

The takeover comes after the school district has seen significan­t academic gains over the past 19 months. The move stoked a partisan divide Wednesday, garnering praise from Republican­s but stirring outrage on the political left, with some Democratic politician­s and a state teachers union charging the takeover is unnecessar­y for academic reasons and politicall­y motivated. The Houston district has a reputation as a liberal stronghold, while Morath and the state leadership of Texas, including Gov. Greg Abbott, is Republican.

The dispute between Houston and the state dates to 2019, when Morath first tried to force out the board overseeing the district after years of poor academic performanc­e at Phillis Wheatley High School and allegation­s of misconduct by trustees. Texas law stipulates the state must take over or close a local district if the district receives a failing grade on state assessment­s five years in a row.

That law, passed in 2015 on a bipartisan basis according to Morath, was born of the standards movement, which pushed to hold accountabl­e schools that failed to raise test students’ scores by imposing consequenc­es including loss of control. Although the movement has lost steam and public support in recent years, the law remains in place in Texas.

The Houston Independen­t School District sued the agency to stop its proposed takeover in November 2019, and the move was put on hold by the courts. But in January, the state Supreme Court cleared the way for the state to go through with its takeover. Last week, the district school board voted to drop its lawsuit entirely.

In the intervenin­g years, as the suit progressed, the Houston school system saw improvemen­ts. Along with the naming of a new superinten­dent, House, much of the school board turned over — and grades on state assessment­s went up. In the most recent round, the district earned a “B” overall, and the troubled Wheatley High School improved to a “C” grade. On the state report cards released in August, about 94 percent of Houston schools earned a passing grade.

Over the past 19 months, the number of campuses receiving “D” or “F” ratings dropped from 50 to 10, out of more than 270 schools. In his statement Wednesday, House referenced this progress, attributin­g it to the “hard work of our students, teachers, and staff.”

In his letter, commission­er Morath praised the district’s recent accomplish­ments, but said they were insufficie­nt to forestall a takeover.

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