After Texas Takes Over Houston Schools, Congress Begins Scrutinising

Stakeholders say the Texas takeover of Houston’s schools is rooted in politics, racism and retribution against an urban district that refuses to go along with a GOP governor’s culture war playbook.

The Biden administration is being asked to open a civil rights investigation into Wednesday’s decision by the Texas Education Agency to stage a state takeover of Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest and most diverse system whose school board was often at odds with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat who represents parts of Harris County, including most of Houston, called for the Biden administration to investigate the takeover, telling U.S. News in an interview that her office, along with the offices of Democratic state legislators in Austin, have sent reams of data and information to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which is in the process of reviewing the material.

“I’m just hoping for a good outcome and that they will step in to investigate whether or not this has been appropriately acquired,” she says.

“I want the Department of Education to investigate, based on questions of equal protection of law and due process, whether or not there is discrimination and whether or not there is any way that there can be a resolution with the state working with the local school district without completely stripping the local school board.”

Commissioner Mike Morath announced Wednesday that a new board of managers will take control of the 195,000-student district no later than June 1 and that he plans to appoint a new superintendent in the coming weeks. In a letter to district leaders, Morath cited five years of poor academic performance at a single high school and the need to appoint a conservator for two consecutive years to ensure improvements as the reasons for his decision.

The announcement comes after a years-long standoff between Houston school leaders and the Abbott administration, which has been trying to wrest control of the district since 2019. A series of complicated and testy legal battles ensued over the reading of a state law that outlines the conditions necessary to allow for a takeover – an impasse that ultimately came to a close in January when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Morath was complying with the law by intervening.

The law was authored in 2015 by state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat, and aimed to establish a tighter accountability system for some of the poorest performing schools in Houston and prod local leaders to take more aggressive action to fix them.

While Morath acknowledged the strides made by Houston schools over the last five years and noted that the district operates some of the highest performing schools in the state, he said in the letter outlining the decision that persistent academic problems exist, and he lamented the district’s approach to supporting students with disabilities, which he said violates state and federal law.

“But district procedures have also allowed it to operate schools where the support provided to students is not adequate,” he wrote. “The governing body of a school system bears ultimate responsibility for the outcomes of all students. While the current Board of Trustees has made progress, systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact district students.”

But district leaders, teachers, parents, community members and civil rights activists are telling a much different story – a story rooted in politics, racism and what could be the most aggressive retribution to date of an urban school district that refuses to go along with a Republican governor’s culture war playbook.