HOUSTON – The Houston Federation of Teachers filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday over the Texas Education Agency’s plan to take over the Houston Independent School District.
The lawsuit claims the state takeover is unconstitutional under U.S. and Texas law because it disenfranchises and discriminates against people based on race and national origin.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that the takeover was triggered due to one chronically failing HISD school -- Wheatley High School -- where the student body is made up of predominantly black and brown students. The lawsuit claims the takeover was not because of grades because HISD earned an 88 out of 100 academic accountability rating, despite having a failing school. The decision to take over HISD was made just days after voters elected new school board members, who would not be able to take their seats, which will silent the democratic electoral process, according to the lawsuit.
“The state’s action to take over the HISD is flagrantly unconstitutional and has nothing to do with giving kids a strong public education,” said Zeph Capo, president of HFT and the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “Gov. Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath will do just about anything to give private charter operators a chance to get their hands on our schools -- even violate the state and U.S. constitutions. We can’t allow our government officials to unconstitutionally marginalize black and brown children, deny them their right to a quality public education, or defy the voice of voters who have just elected new school board members.”
HFT said it believes the state’s goal is to convert the district’s public schools into privately owned charter schools, which is something HISD board members have refused to do in the past.
Capo said several Houston charter schools have lower ratings than Wheatley High School but are still allowed to operate and not be singled out in the takeover.
“The real shame is that the focus is on a scheme to characterize the district, not to get Wheatley the resources it needs to improve student achievement," Capo said. “Experience shows that charters do not produce the improvements their supporters claim.”
The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin, seeks injunctive relief and alleges that the proposed takeover will violate the 14 and 15th Constitutional amendments because it will alienate minority voters and discriminate against the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs, three educators, one of whom is a parent of two children in the district, said the proposed takeover violates Texas’ Equal Rights Amendment.
What the plaintiffs are saying
Jackie Anderson, a special education teacher at Ortiz Middle School:
“Growing up, my parents instilled the value of civic responsibility. I voted for the first time with my mother. I was taught the value of my vote. Voting is something that you have an obligation to do. Everyone’s vote should count. My choice should be respected. To say that it doesn’t matter is a violation of my right as a citizen."
Maxie Hollingsworth, a math teacher at Red Elementary and parent of HISD students:
“I was raised with the idea of the importance of equitable education and every person’s right to vote. It offends me to my core that people of privilege and power truly don’t care about communities of color and poor people. This takeover is a very targeted and intentional process and amounts to illegal disenfranchisement. It would take away my vote and everyone else’s who voted in the school board election. I can’t look at myself in the mirror and say this is OK. It’s not OK."
Daniel Santos, a social studies teacher at Navarro Middle School:
“Through voting, I am holding policymakers accountable and making sure that minorities are not disenfranchised. I view the takeover of our recently elected school board as unconstitutional. It’s a serious violation of my civil rights that prevents me as a citizen from holding our policymakers accountable."