Rumors swirl about TEA takeover of Houston ISD, but actual timeline and decision remain unclear

Many have said a takeover will happen in early March, but the TEA maintains that a decision has not been made yet.

Houston ISD Headquarters
Florian Martin / Houston Public Media
Houston ISD’s Hattie Mae White Administration Building.

From the Texas Capitol to the Houston City Council, policymakers are saying that the Texas Education Agency will take over the Houston Independent School District in a matter of days.

Those rumors remain unconfirmed.

On Tuesday, TEA head Mike Morath spoke to the House Public Education Committee. He was asked about the timeline for a potential takeover.

"We have not made any final decision and not announced any final action," the Education Commissioner said. "The Supreme Court issued an opinion in January but has not actually formalized that opinion. So, we’re still evaluating the ruling and waiting for the next action."

State Representative Alma Allen followed up.

"I’m hearing the streets have it," she said. "And I have to tell you what the streets have. It is going to be March 6th ... And there are already persons that have been asked to take over the position of superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, and that it is going to take place by media, and that is going to take place on March 6th. Do you have any idea?"

"Yeah, the streets — streets say a lot," Morath responded. "So all I would say is we’re still waiting to evaluate the Supreme Court’s ruling — which has not yet been finalized — to try to discern then what our next required action is under state law. Of course, what we are going to do is going to be a mandatory action under state law, not a discretionary action.”

A spokesperson for the Supreme Court of Texas confirmed that the decision was finalized on Wednesday, writing in the afternoon that "The Clerk's Office informs me the mandate was issued today."

The Texas Education Agency and Houston ISD did not immediately comment on the mandate.

The state law Morath referred to is at the heart of the takeover. It requires that when a school receives a series of failing accountability ratings, the education commissioner must close the school, appoint a conservator to improve performance or install a board of state-appointed managers in place of the district's elected school board members. In Houston ISD, Wheatley High School received several failing ratings in the leadup to 2019 — the year Morath first tried to install a board of managers. The school has since received a passing grade.

The state-appointed managers would hold immense power. They can control the budget, school closures, collaborations with charter networks, policies around curriculum and library books, as well as hiring or firing the superintendent, among other important decisions.

On Wednesday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner repeated the rumors. He said he's been "hearing" the same thing Rep. Allen said on Tuesday — that a state takeover of Houston ISD is imminent.

“This is an outright takeover," Turner said. "And if you value anything about local control, local districts, parents having a say, it may not be your district this time, but then it’s creating a bad model."

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo reacted to the comments on Houston Matters. She drew a parallel between a potential takeover of Houston ISD and the battle between the state and county governments over election management.

"In Harris County, we are larger than 25 states in population," she said. "So imagine if President Biden were to say, ‘I’m going to take over the elections, and I’m going to take over the education, I’m going to take over this and that' in 25 American states."

But TEA maintains that it has not made a decision. A spokesperson said the agency's only comment remains the same as it was in January: "TEA continues to review the Supreme Court’s decision in order to determine next steps that best support the students, teachers, parents, and school community of the Houston Independent School District."

KERA's Bill Zeeble contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to include a statement from the Supreme Court of Texas.