Boarding the School Bus,” by Glenn Beltz

April 25, 2018; Houston Public Media, Houston Chronicle, and ABC13

For the last five years, ten public schools in Houston, Texas, have failed to meet state standards. Is the reason just a failure of school or district leadership, or are there deeper causes? Texas law, like that in many other states, sees management as the only acceptable answer to that question. Facing an April 30th deadline to provide the state its plans, on Tuesday evening the board considered a proposal to turn the schools over to a charter school organization for the next two school years. The proposal brought out community members who spoke loudly about their concerns. On Wednesday, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) board announced its decision, and the state may not be happy.

Reflective of the thinking of many school reformers, the Texas education policymakers see the failing schools’ teachers and administrator, along with Houston’s school board, as the cause of poor school performance. Accordingly, only drastic change will bring improvement. Houston Public Media described the challenge from the State: “If these ten schools don’t improve this year, they could trigger sanctions—either closing down the schools or replacing HISD’s board of trustees with state-appointed managers.”

When the board convened Tuesday, it faced this state-mandated crisis with little flexibility. On its agenda was a proposal, made public only last Friday, to turn these ten schools over to the locally rooted Energized for STEM Academy system, which currently operates four other charter schools in Houston. These schools have performed better than the average school district school. While remaining formally under the HISD banner, this arrangement, if approved, would effectively remove responsibility for the schools’ budgets, curriculum, and turnaround strategy from the district’s leadership.

As a private organization overseen by a three-person board of directors, Energized for STEM is less accountable to the communities they serve. But, as an organization that has its roots in the Houston community, the board saw it as the best of the options available. Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones told the Houston Chronicle that “she supports forming partnerships if it means keeping local control and avoiding campus closures, which she called devastating to neighborhoods that are predominately black and Hispanic. She said her constituents…wanted a partner with local ties.”

Opponents to this plan saw it as just one more step toward weakening the fabric of public education and its connection to community. Denise Henderson, a community volunteer at one of the targeted schools, told ABC13 that “removing local control of a community school would hurt the neighborhood. As much as I would want to think it’s a great idea, I just foresee all of the staff who have been here for five, 10, 15, 20 years being fired, and I just don’t know if that would be the best thing.”

For others questioning this strategy, changing management ignores the real reasons these schools have struggled. According to Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo, “We have several schools that have been chronically underfunded that have been in many ways underserved that are operating in communities with high levels of poverty, high levels of family strife and struggle, that actually need more resources than a typical school.”

The stronger-than-average academic outcomes at Energized for STEM may be more indicative of the nature of charter schools. Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig of Cal State Sacramento has found that some of the Academy’s results raise questions. With no requirement that it retain or accommodate all students, a responsibility the school district has, its student attrition is high. According to Heilig, a higher percentage of Energized for Stem take AP courses than the state average—25 vs. 19 percent—but the percentage who pass one or more AP exams is “far lower.” (8 percent vs. 51 percent. Consequently, Heilig concludes “the school is pushing the students to take more AP courses but not sufficiently teaching the material that would allow the students to pass the AP test. This is further supported by none (0 percent) of the teachers having three or more years of experience and only 64 percent of those teachers having a teaching credential.”

One day later, the voice of community concern was heard. The HISD board announced it would not go forward with the charter school option and would retain control of all its schools. According to the Houston Chronicle, interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said in a statement that, “We are not bringing another partnership proposal to the board, nor will there be another meeting to consider partnerships for the 10 schools. Instead, we will continue to reinforce our commitment to helping students, staff, and families of our Achieve 180 schools continue the hard work they’ve done this year to transform their campuses and increase student achievement.”

Will Texas state officials recognize that neither closing schools nor removing local community control will improve teaching or ensure that children learn? With the ball soon to be in their court, we will have a chance to see if community input matters as much in Austin as it does in Houston.—Martin Levine