Akil Head [CC BY-SA 3.0]

January 3, 2019; Houston Chronicle and Texas Tribune

NPQ has been following the struggle of the Houston Independent School District to stave off a state takeover. While many urban school districts would be quite happy if they could match the performance of Houston’s public schools, the district is facing the imminent loss of local control.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the nation’s seventh-largest public school district is doing quite well, serving more than 200,000 children. It “scored an 84 out of 100, equivalent to a ‘B’ rating, under the state’s new academic accountability system, besting Dallas, Fort Worth, Aldine and several other large school districts [and] also cut its number of schools failing to meet state academic standards from 58 in 2015 to 21 in 2018.” Nor have there been any charges of financial irregularities or other ethical scandals, issues that have rocked other districts in the state and nationally.

So, why is the governor of Texas threatening to fire the locally elected school board and put the district under state control?

As of 2015, Texas law mandates that when individual schools do not meet state standards for more than five years, the state’s education commissioner must either close them or, if they choose, replace the entire school board and operate the entire school district directly. A takeover is permissible if even just one school fails to meet the required level of performance. Four of Houston’s more than 200 schools fell below that line, and so Governor Jim Abbott said the district should be shut down.

When the district decided not to privatize those four underperforming schools, proponents of school reform and privatization saw an excuse to act. Last week, Governor Greg Abbott tweeted his support for state control of Houston’s schools:

For Governor Abbott, this change is so urgent that it cannot wait until the next election to see if the voters of Houston want the school board to move in a different direction.

The district has had its share of challenges and leadership turmoil. Included among them, according to the Texas Tribune, were “Hurricane Harvey’s floods causing major financial hemorrhages and long-term school closures in August 2017 and a superintendent leaving for New York City’s schools soon after. The district has not had a permanent superintendent since March.” In a series of acrimonious meetings, HISD considered a proposal for ceding management of the four struggling schools to a new educational management organization supported by Houston’s mayor. Their conclusion that this was not in the best interests of their students was seen by the governor as “irresponsible” and sufficient justification to end local control and, consequently, increase privatization of the public schools.

At the time, NPQ reported that “opponents…saw it as just one more step toward weakening the fabric of public education and its connection to community.”

In an op-ed published in the Houston Chronicle, three community activists challenged the premise of the governor and his supporters:

This policy perpetuates a narrative of failing schools based on testing, and then promotes privatization policies as the solution. State government is holding a gun to the head of the public and demanding we surrender our students…

Test kids to death with inherently flawed exams. Punish them, their teachers and their communities if they fail by a methodology that doesn’t apply. Ignore poverty and other systemic factors. In the end, the [Texas Education Agency] treats schools like a business, with data sheets that transform kids into bottom lines instead of beautiful, worthwhile, unique cases with their own personal challenges as they grow into adults…

The root of education issues is almost always poverty—and tests won’t fix that.

The fate of Houston’s school district will tell us much about how much those supporting privatization and school reform believe in democracy. Democracy is messy. Decisions never reflect everyone’s judgment. But, a disagreement about the best way to improve four schools does not seem to support a conclusion that democracy has failed and local control should end.

We may wish to remember that a similar seizing of local control immediately preceded the water decisions in Flint, Michigan, that led to the poisoning of the city’s water supply. This was followed by a seizing of control of the local public schools in Detroit that was similarly flawed.—Martin Levine