HOUSTON – The Texas Education Agency is moving forward with a takeover of the state’s largest school district.
TEA Commissioner Mike Morath sent a letter to the Houston ISD Board of Trustees Wednesday morning after meeting with Houston-area state lawmakers at the capitol, notifying them of the agency’s intent.
“The goal here is to let what is great about Houston continue to be great, but where there are places where students have for far too long gone without the sort of structure of support that they need,” Morath told KPRC 2 News. “The system of Houston ISD seems to allow campuses to go many, many years without seeing performance.”
As part of the takeover, the state agency will begin the search for a new HISD superintendent and open an application for a new board of managers, all of whom are expected to be appointed “on or about” June 1. The board of managers application is now live here.
The managers will have the powers and duties of the elected board and must live inside the boundaries of HISD. Current board members will temporarily lose authority but will be invited to serve in an advisory capacity. School board elections will continue.
The state’s takeover attempt started in 2019 after seven consecutive unacceptable ratings at HISD’s Wheatley High School and 50 HISD schools receiving D or F grades.
While Morath acknowledged the district has gotten better and there have been improvements since then, he said the law requires him to act.
Under current state law, the TEA commissioner, who is appointed by the governor, has to take action when a campus has five consecutive years of unacceptable ratings. The law allows only two remedies: closing a campus or appointing a board of managers.
When the TEA attempted to take over in 2019, HISD sued to stop the intervention. After years of court action, the Supreme Court of Texas issued a mandate and reversed a lower court’s ruling that blocked the takeover and gave the TEA the green light to move forward under the authority currently offered by state law.
“We’ve been in court essentially on pause for the better part of three years,” Morath said. “We are still required to intervene the same way that we were in 2019.”
Morath said Superintendent Millard House II, who was elected by the school board in June 2021, has done a “tremendous job” and that he has asked him to continue to serve in a leadership role for the duration of the transition.
In 2022, Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio ISDs all received B accountability ratings overall from the TEA. Since 2019, HISD has gone from 50 schools receiving a D or F rating to 10, and Wheatley High School received a passing C grade.
“Even though aggregate performance in Houston looks one way… chronic low achievement in individual campuses is specific to Houston,” Morath said.
Rumblings of the state moving forward with a takeover started March 1, when Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he heard from legislators about the plans.
The TEA kept its decision under wraps, at least publicly, for more than two weeks. The state agency only issued written statements while speculation swirled about what a potential takeover would mean for the eighth-largest school district in the United States.
“This is about a local board of trustees being temporarily replaced with a local board of managers. These are all Houstonians. My job here is to make sure that I find the right group of people, have diverse backgrounds, diverse perspective, high degree of ethics, integrity, wisdom, that really believe that all children can learn and achieve at high levels that will come together as a governing team. And then they are in charge of the district, not me,” Morath said.
Applicants for the board of managers will go through a transparent application process and rigorous interview process, he said.
WHAT IS THE BOARD OF MANAGERS EXPECTED TO IMPROVE?
The goal is for the appointed board of managers to be involved in Houston ISD for the shortest amount of time possible, Morath said.
The TEA doesn’t want to see any more campuses with multi-year D or F ratings, he said, adding that the current system has allowed some campuses to have low levels of achievement for years.
“It’s not to say that, you know, school is hard. You will you’ll see difficulty from time to time, but you should take steps to remediate that quickly. So, no more multi-year D and F campuses,” Morath said.
The managers will also be expected to ensure the district’s special education programs operate within complete state and federal compliance, he said. The third focus will be on ensuring the board’s behavior is “consistent with high-performing boards around the state of Texas.”
HISTORY OF TEA TAKEOVERS
According to data provided by the TEA, 15 school districts in Texas have been taken over by the state agency. In the last 20 years, Morath said there have been seven boards of managers put in place at districts across the state.
Of those, three were for academic reasons and four were for financial or governance reasons, he said.
In districts where board of managers were placed for academic reasons, he said student achievement has gone up.
“Board of managers actions are fairly rare, but they are effective in improving outcomes for kids,” Morath said. “Leadership matters … leadership is the most important ingredient in achieving success in any endeavor, educating kids, chief among them.”
Among the seven districts where boards of managers were implemented, Morath said they were in place for two to six years.
While some have accused the state of playing politics and meddling in local affairs, Morath shut down the idea and said he doesn’t think there’s any truth to it.
“This is about children, first and foremost,” he said. “We are laser-focused on, how do we make sure that we provide the best supports possible for students in Houston?”
Morath also said he doesn’t believe there’s any discriminatory intent in the state’s move.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has asked President Joe Biden and the U.S. Department of Education to intervene in the state takeover of HISD, calling it “unnecessary, unfair and discriminatory.” She has also called for a federal civil rights investigation.
“It is ultimately the statute that is requiring the intervention here and the statute is looking at how our students are performing,” Morath said.
Current state law is clear about what the TEA commissioner shall do when a campus has an unacceptable performance rating for five school years in a row: close the campus or appoint a board of managers.
But on March 6, Houston-area state lawmakers filed Senate Bill 1662, which would allow the TEA alternative remedies, including issuing a public notice of the deficiency to the board of trustees, ordering the preparation of a student achievement improvement plan that addresses each academic achievement indicator, or appointing an agency monitor to participate in and report to the agency on the activities of the board of trustees of the district or superintendent, and more.
“The agency’s reason for initiating a takeover bid in 2019 is no longer valid. After years of hard work by the students, teachers, parents and community, Phyllis Wheatley High School joined 94% of HISD schools that earned an A, B or C in 2022, with the district receiving a B grade overall. Consequently, it is unjust and unwarranted for TEA to move forward with a takeover. S.B. 1662 offers the agency options to work collaboratively with HISD to address any current deficiencies instead of subjecting nearly 200,000 students and 27,000 teachers and employees to a takeover,” one of the bill authors, State Sen. Carol Alvarado, wrote in a statement.
According to the proposed legislation, it would take effect immediately if approved by two-thirds of members elected to each the House and Senate.
The TEA is expected to launch a website where individuals interested in being appointed to the board of managers can begin the application process.
“I’m finding people who are going to exercise good judgment, who are going to take in all the facts. They’re going to talk to their friends and neighbors and teachers and parents and students and listen to reports from the administration and make good governance decisions for that district,” Morath said.
Applicants will be required to go through a community reference check, in which Houston-area state legislators will be able to provide feedback. They’ll also have to pass a background check, according to a TEA presentation. A rigorous interview process is also expected.
The appointments are expected on or about June 1.