April 12, 2023

Jeff Bryant: What’s Behind the State Takeover of Houston’s Schools

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School district takeovers have a long history of failure, but Texas is taking the failed strategy one step further by taking over a district that isn’t even in trouble. Jeff Bryant lays out the story at The Progressive.

While some have painted the move as a genuine and bipartisan effort to intercede on the behalf of “students,” other reports indicate a familiar political dynamic is unfolding: that is, Republican and predominantly white state officials are taking control of a non-white Democratic-led school district.

The Associated Press reports that a “six-page letter” composed by Morath accuses the district of various deficiencies including alleged “misconduct” by school board members. But it’s not clear which members committed the violations and when (the membership of the board has completely changed due to recent election outcomes).

Morath said board meetings had become “chaotic” and “marred by infighting,” but if enforcing calm and orderly school board meetings is his goal, he might want to look at those districts in his state where angry white people are interrupting board meetings with loud accusations of schools being hotbeds for “post-Marxist critical theory” and “antifa.”

But other motivations may be in play.

“This decision is driven by the urge to privatize a public school district,” says Ruth Kravetz, who spent thirty-four years in public education and now serves on the steering committee of a Houston-based education advocacy group called Community Voices for Public Education.

Kravetz describes an eight-year campaign conducted by state lawmakers and self-described “education reformers” to discredit the district and expand privately operated charter schools and voucher programs. Kravetz says the takeover effort began in 2015 when the state passed a law ruling that any school district can be subject to state takeover even if only one campus is rated F, for five years, by the state’s standardized test-based performance rating system.

The law was modified somewhat in 2017, according to Houston Public Media, to give districts an option of temporarily turning management of any low-performing schools to an outside group, such as “a nonprofit or charter school.”

How bad is the district?

Indeed, according to the most recent state performance scorecard, Houston Independent School District has a B rating. Moreover, according to state ratings, 94 percent of the district’s 200 schools are rated A, B, or C.

The supposedly failing school at the center of the takeover is Phillis Wheatley High School. Wheatley triggered the first threat of state takeover in 2019 when the school earned an F rating on state performance rankings for the seventh consecutive year. Yet, since then, Wheatly has improved its state rating from a grade of F to C.

The district also has a AA-plus bond rating, which means its financials are high quality and pose a low credit risk.

A privatization agenda fits within the overall context of the state’s current education politics. Under the leadership of Republican Governor Gregg Abbott, Texas has become a breeding ground of school privatization efforts.

According to Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, a national group that is critical of privatization, “The [Houston] takeover is the latest move in a long list of actions by Abbott’s administration to attack public school districts and expand privatized alternatives including poorly regulated charter schools and now a proposed voucher program that would use public money for private and religious education.”

Read the full story here. 

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