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Yes, Something Stinks about the State Takeover of the Houston Independent School District

The state officials behind the takeover are vandals, disrupters, corrupters of democracy.

Sign reads: Protect public education.

"Something stinks in Texas," writes education historian Diane Ravtich. (Photo: United Federation of Teachers/ Facebook)

A trio of activists on behalf of public schools wrote a blistering critique of the pending state takeover of the Houston Independent School District, based on the failure of ONE high school that has an unusually high proportion of students who are poor and have disabilities.

Zeph Capo is president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and Texas AFT, James Dixon is pastor of the Community of Faith Church in Houston and a vice president of the Houston Branch of the NAACP, and Hugo Mojica is president of LULAC Education Council #402.

They write:

Residents of this community are increasingly frustrated with the upheaval in the Houston Independent School District. As Houstonians who work directly with the educators, parents and students in the district, we don’t blame them. But something doesn’t add up in the state’s decision to take over HISD.

Houston schools have been on an improvement track for years — the district recently earned a B grade from the state — just two points away from an A. After years of struggle among legislators, administrators and educators to figure out how best to serve our kids, HISD should be celebrating our progress. But instead of cheering parents, educators and students, who came together and turned around the city’s schools, the state slapped our community in the face by announcing this punitive takeover of the entire district.

A byzantine Texas law enables the state to trigger a district takeover — all 283 Houston public schools — if just one school chronically underperforms. So instead of investing in that one school — Wheatley High School, in this case — and providing it the attention and resources it needs, Austin bureaucrats chose to scapegoat and punish the entire city. Given that Houston students just scored second in math and third in reading within their national peer group, HISD seems like it should be a model rather than a takeover target.

The writers might have also mentioned that Houston was the only city to win the Broad award for most improved urban district twice, an honor conferred by the Broad Foundation, which has the same worldview of disruption as the Texas State Board of Education and State Commissioner Mike Morath. Morath previously served on the Dallas board of education but he is not an educator. He is a software developer. He has no ideas about how to improve schools, nor has he ever improved a school.

The authors write:

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This political power grab is the epitome of overreaching, but it also reflects an insidious, ongoing effort to deny black and brown communities the educational opportunities their kids deserve. It represents a classist, old-school view of public education that rewards the privileged few and ignores the difficult work that must be done to ensure schools are safe and welcoming and meet the needs of all kids, regardless of geography or demography.

What’s also incredibly disappointing is that this takeover comes on the heels of a democratic election, in which the community elected new school board members. If this untenable takeover proceeds, duly elected trustees won’t get a chance to take their seats, defying the will of the people and denying a voice for those elected to represent the needs of students.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath aren’t actually looking out for Houston’s kids. They want to privatize Texas’ largest school district through a charter scheme. If that happens, this plan will funnel money out of our traditional public schools and into for-profit alternatives. This recent election vote reflected the community’s mandate that Houston public schools continue to invest in evidence-based wraparound services, including health care, before- and after-school programs, and enhanced social and emotional services.

State officials would prefer to privatize rather than invest new resources in a major district that is facing challenges and doing well compared to other urban districts.

Yes, indeed, something stinks in Texas.

The state officials behind the takeover are vandals, disrupters, corrupters of democracy.

They should not be allowed to mess with the HISD.

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University. Her most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools.  Her previous books and articles about American education include: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, (Simon & Schuster, 2000); The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf, 2003); The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know (Oxford, 2006), which she edited with her son Michael Ravitch. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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