Texas Education Agency picks Mike Miles for Houston ISD superintendent as state takeover begins

Mike Miles speaks on the "Superintendent Confidential" panel at The Texas Tribune Festival in 2014. Miles was announced as the state-appointed superintendent of Houston ISD. (Stephen Spillman For The Texas Tribune, Stephen Spillman For The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Education Agency has tapped former Dallas schools superintendent Mike Miles to be superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, commencing the state’s takeover of its largest school district.

Miles’ first day on the job overseeing the district of nearly 190,000 students is Thursday. He is working under a temporary 21-day contract until a board of managers, also newly appointed by Education Commissioner Mike Morath, formally approves him to lead the district. Morath will decide how long the organization’s state-appointed board — which replaced a democratically elected school board — and superintendent will be in place. Previous TEA takeovers have lasted two to six years.

The state’s takeover of Houston ISD was the response to years of poor academic outcomes at a single campus in the district, Phillis Wheatley High School; allegations of misconduct against school board members; and the ongoing presence of a conservator who’s been overseeing the district for years. Morath has said state law requires his agency to respond by either closing Wheatley or appointing a new board to oversee the district.

Miles said in a statement Thursday that he looked forward to getting to know the district’s families and congratulated the ones who just marked the end of another academic year. He apologized to the parents of students with disabilities, calling Houston ISD’s failure to fulfill those students’ needs over the years a “complete systemic failure from top to bottom.” In 2020, after a nearly yearlong investigation, TEA officials concluded that the district had failed to correct persistent issues regarding its delivery of services for students with disabilities.

“You will see and feel things change,” Miles said. “We will be aligning our resources – especially our most effective teachers and principals – to better serve students in underserved communities. For students who need to catch up and in schools that have failed for years, we will be offering more instructional time. We will ask you to change and adapt along with us.”

The state’s move comes over the protests of many Houston elected officials, local education advocates and parents. Miles and the new board will inherit a district that has for years remained an overall well-performing school system, compared with others in Texas. The district was also experiencing a bit of momentum with a new superintendent after years of scandal and public dysfunction. Still, certain campuses struggled for years, and in the end, one spurred the takeover. Morath said the district had long neglected some of its students and that he had no choice.

Miles arrives from leadership posts in Colorado, where he founded a public network of charters and served as superintendent of the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs. He also led Dallas ISD, the state’s second-largest district, during a time when Morath served on the district’s school board.

“We were looking for people from a wide array of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives who believe all children can learn and achieve at high levels when properly supported and who can work together,” Morath said in a news release. “I believe the governing team I am naming today will work as a unified team, dedicated to improving student outcomes and supporting educators.”

A steady hymn of condemnation from a chorus of takeover opponents, continued Thursday in the wake of the state's long-rumored appointment of Miles.

"Don’t get confused," Jackie Anderson, who leads the Houston Federation of Teachers, the district's largest union, said in a statement. "This is a hostile takeover. We are no longer an independent school district. But we will also not be a silent school district."

Advocates of the takeover celebrated the milestone. Its impact is not yet measurable, but it will certainly change the course of one of the nation's largest school districts, which boasts a range of famed alumni like Beyoncé Knowles, business mogul Mary Kay Ash, former Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, legendary Texas politician Barbara Jordan, singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, filmmaker Richard Linklater, broadcast journalist Dan Rather and former NFL quarterback Vince Young,

"Mr. Miles’ experience with large school districts and implementing ground-breaking initiatives, including his experience with turning around charter schools, makes him a perfect fit for the task at hand in the states’ largest school system," state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. "I’m confident under Mr. Miles’ leadership, and the new board of managers, that reflect the diversity of the residents of HISD’s broad range of background and skills, will focus on improving the educational outcomes of our HISD school children.”

Of the 462 applications for the board managers the state received, 52 — roughly 11% — were individuals who identified as Hispanic, largely underrepresenting the same demographic that accounts for about two-thirds of the district's student body — or some 127,000 schoolchildren, according to figures shared Thursday by TEA and demographics data maintained by HISD.

In previous statements justifying the state's takeover, Morath has referred to a state law passed in 2015 mandating a state takeover if a school district or one of its campuses receives failing grades in the TEA’s accountability rating system for five consecutive years. Phillis Wheatley reached that threshold in 2019.

Morath and the agency moved to force out the district’s school board that same year. The district pushed back and sued, but the Texas Supreme Court ruled in January that the agency could move forward with its plan to take over the district.

“Even with a delay of three full years caused by legal proceedings, systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact students most in need of our collective support,” Morath wrote in a letter to district leaders in March.

The TEA, which grades schools and districts each year based on their academic achievement, gave Phillis Wheatley a grade of F in 2019. Last year, Phillis Wheatley got a C, and Houston ISD as a whole received a B. In the last 19 months, Houston ISD has made strides in reducing the number of its campuses with a D or F rating from about 50 to 10. Ninety-four percent of district schools now earn a grade of A, B or C.

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