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Considering race, class and power in Texas Education Agency’s takeover of Houston Independent School District

The Texas Education Agency is seizing control of the largest school district in the state. For both supporters and opponents of the takeover, race and class plays an undeniable central role in the move.

West University Elementary School
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
West University Elementary School

Read more about the Texas Education Agency's decision to seize control of the Houston Independent School District here.

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"Valet or self park?" an attendant asked, as parents, teachers and guests arrived at the White Oak Music Hall.

White Oak usually plays host to music acts that draw big crowds, like country darling Margo Price or indie acts Inner Wave and JAWNY.

On the evening of Friday, Jan. 20, a handsome auctioneer with slicked back hair took the stage as a cover band wrapped up its opening set. He asked for donations. In less than 15 minutes, parents of West University Elementary students gave more than $25,000.

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Then the live auction started.

$2,000 for a round of golf with the school's principal. $4,501 for a Havanese puppy, and another $7,000 for a Labradoodle puppy. $11,000 for a five-night stay at a ski-in, ski-out resort in Telluride, Colorado.

The fundraiser helped fill in funding gaps for an elementary school serving one of the wealthiest areas in the Houston Independent School District. West University Elementary teachers appreciate the generosity, which supports things as basic as paper supplies and the replacement of air conditioning units.

West University Elementary received an A accountability rating last school year, with TEA awarding the campus 95 out of 100 points. The student body was more than 60% white, 17% Asian, 13% Hispanic and less than 2% African American. Less than 7% of the student body was considered "economically disadvantaged."

Across town in Houston's Fifth Ward, Houston ISD superintendent Millard House II and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner read Dr. Seuss to students at Bruce Elementary on March 9, as rumors of an imminent state takeover swirled.

House shared a story about struggling to read when he was a child, then made a request.

"Promise me that you all will continue reading, and do all that you can do to continue learning," he asked.

"I promise!" students responded.

Last year, the student body at Bruce was about 72% African American, 27% Hispanic, less than 1% Asian and less than 1% white. Almost 100% of the student body was classified as "economically disadvantaged." Bruce Elementary moved from a D rating in 2018-19 to a B rating last school year — mirroring similar progress at nearby Wheatley High School, which moved from an F to a C. Many students from Bruce Elementary go on to attend Wheatley High.

TEA launched an effort to takeover HISD in 2019, after Wheatley — one of the 280 schools in the district — received a series of failing accountability ratings from the agency. The ratings are based on standardized tests and post-graduate performance. The agency also pointed to dysfunction and alleged illegal activity by the school board trustees — seven of whom have since left office or lost elections. The new board hired a new superintendent.

Despite the progress at Wheatley, Bruce and several other Title I schools, the Texas Education Agency maintains that schools like West University Elementary are carrying the weight of the Houston Independent School District's solid overall B rating.

State Assistant Solicitor General Kyle Highful presented oral arguments to the Supreme Court of Texas in October, three months before the all-Republican court cleared the way for TEA to replace the elected school board of HISD with state-appointed managers.

"The commissioner's view is that, ‘Yes, HISD is a large school district, and what that means is you have some very wealthy, very high-performing schools up here that are doing great, but you also have schools like Wheatley and Kashmere that struggle year after year,’" he told justices. "And if you’re a student at one of these low-performing schools, it doesn’t help you to know that elsewhere in the district there’s a school that’s doing great. And the commissioner believes that every student should have access to a quality education."

"Houston ISD, as a system, continues to allow chronically low achievement in multiple schools," education commissioner Mike Morath told Houston Public Media.

Wheatley exists in a socioeconomic environment that has roots in century-old segregation. And in the eyes of many critics, TEA's push to take control of the entire district is more about seizing power than improving public education.

A century of segregation

Almost 93 years before the takeover push began, the HISD school board opened Wheatley High School as a "Colored" secondary campus, replacing what had been a white elementary school in the integrated Fifth Ward community.

For decades, Black community members in Houston had demanded better schools for their children. Policymakers gave in, but they had an ulterior motive: to create segregated residential patterns across the Houston area, where Black and white people were relatively integrated at the dawn of the 20th century.

Phillis Wheatley High School had a high number of students who were classified as "economically disadvantaged."
Phillis Wheatley High School had a high number of students who were classified as “economically disadvantaged.”

The City of Atlanta's attempt to create explicit race-based residential zoning was struck down in court in 1924, but Brown v. Board of Education wouldn't end school segregation until 1954. Houston city planners wanted to circumvent the prohibition on outright residential segregation. So, throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, the school board began placing all-white campuses in West Houston and Black schools in South and Northeast Houston. The board also shuttered or denied adequate resources to the schools that didn't fit in with city planners' racial zoning plan.

Historian Karen Benjamin's research revealed the racist motivations of city planners.

"In Houston and Atlanta, you’ve got more than one area where you’re targeting literally ghetto formation — not ‘ghetto' as an adjective, but ‘ghetto' as a noun," she explained. "‘This is where we are going to have all Black development occur, this is where people are going to live.' And there isn’t really a choice."

Houston's Fifth Ward was one of those areas. The school board converted the all-white McGowan Elementary School to a "Colored" high school named after poet Phillis Wheatley in 1927.

The plan to create residential segregation through school placement succeeded. Economic development and industrial pollution followed.

"All the economic resources are heading west along I-10 and depriving areas in the east side of Houston of those same resources," Benjamin said. "You also have the environmental racism, and you just dump all this harm — everything that you don’t want on the west side — gets dumped on the east side."

As Benjamin pointed out, residential segregation is difficult to undo because it "gets baked in." In 2019, the median household income in Fifth Ward was just under $28,000, compared to more than $52,000 across the City of Houston and more than $60,000 across the state.

Commissioner Morath previously served as a school board trustee in Dallas ISD. In 2014, he told D Magazine that Dallas was "one of the most segregated cities in the country, and we have one of the most segregated school systems," and the way to build trust in that environment was "going where you're not wanted and having conversations with people who don't agree with you."

"Human beings are flawed creatures, and we have every sin imaginable that befalls us," Morath told Houston Public Media. "And it requires us to take intentional actions to learn from one another to love thy neighbor, to assume good intentions when we otherwise wouldn’t, and to listen from other people’s lived experiences. It’s been important for me as we had been engaged in this intervention in Houston for quite some time to learn and listen from people who grew up in that part of Houston that lived those experiences, and it’s by learning constantly from those conversations from the lived experience of others."

In recent years, Houston ISD has tried to alleviate a variety of disparities through "weighted-student" funding strategies that send additional dollars to schools with "student populations that need more educational resources including those classified as at-risk, economically disadvantaged, or bilingual, and those enrolled in special education, gifted and talented, and career and technology programs."

Morath argued the district hasn't done enough.

"This is about creating an environment of servant-leadership from the board," he said. "That the district doesn’t exist to serve the board. It’s actually the other way around; the board exists to serve the students and teachers of the district. It is about making sure that you set priorities as the board that in terms of resource allocation, in terms of outcomes expectations, that you support your administrative team so that they can make the changes necessary to provide the resources needed at the schools that are most challenged."

‘Your status quo catches up to you'

In the school year before the takeover attempt, 94% of the 873 students at Wheatley's were classified as "economically disadvantaged," 16% were "English learners" — and 79% were considered "at risk."

Tommy Villalva was valedictorian in 2019. He said the socioeconomic makeup of the area had an impact on academic performance.

"The social environment kind of impacts you and how you act academically, and how you prepare for your future because you have to grow faster," he said. "So you may need to get a job quicker than others to pay the bills, which may have an effect on your academic performance because you’re up late at night till 11 p.m. trying to make money for bills — rent, groceries, whatever the case may be — and you were too tired to do some homework, you’re too tired to study for your exam, or you’re too tired to actually put forth the effort towards the academic goals."

In Villalva's final year at Wheatley, the school served 460 African American students, 403 Hispanic students, 6 multiracial students, 3 Asian students and 3 white students. Many of them lived through Hurricane Harvey two years earlier, which flooded hundreds of housing units in the area.

Phillis Wheatley High School was racially segregated nearly a century ago. Today Black students still make up a majority of its population.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Phillis Wheatley High School was racially segregated nearly a century ago. Today Black students still make up a majority of its population.

"Most minorities start from behind," he continued. "And starting from behind means you have to catch up. And you’re playing catch up for so long that eventually your status quo catches up to you."

Wheatley's special ed population was significantly higher than district and statewide averages — more than 20% of the student population at the school was in special education, compared to 7% across the district and 10% across the state. 95% of the 179 special education students were included in the state's accountability rating. Ruth Kravetz is with Community Voices for Public Education.

"Almost half of the kids in the school are coming to the table with a more complicated set of experiences than people whose parents have tutors at home and printers at home and all those other things," she said. "Great work can be done in the classroom, but it’s not going to manifest on these arbitrary tests with the arbitrary rating system that implies that learning is happening here and not happening over there."

TEA's ratings of schools and districts are based on a number of factors, including standardized test performance and, for high schools, student outcomes after graduation. Texas law requires schools to prepare students to attend college, receive career-related certifications, or join the military.

As Villalva pointed out, those standards don't fully measure success.

"TEA obviously sees success as college acceptance and college graduation," he said. "There’s so many other kids that don’t necessarily meet that status but are still successful in life. The entrepreneurs — one of my close friends, he’s opened a barber shop. You don’t see that in the statistics, right? I got a friend — he’s a general manager at a store. You don’t see them. I got a young and upcoming owner that has his own security firm. You don’t see him in the statistics, right? All you see is talking about people like me that go to college."

To the west of Fifth Ward, 99% of the students at Sherman Elementary are "economically disadvantaged," according to TEA.

In 2018, Karina Quesada-León pulled her kids out of a predominantly white school and sent them to Sherman. At the time, TEA awarded Sherman 59 points and rated it as "improvement required."

"I sent my children over there because I wanted diversity for them," Quesada-León said. "My daughter who lacks confidence, that school did wonders for her. The teachers that were there just did so much good for her confidence, she just blossomed and thrived at that school ... I think there are other ways to measure schools than standardized testing."

Many takeover opponents argue the state should better fund schools instead of ramping up accountability sanctions.

"I think sometimes the facts get lost in people’s preferred narratives," Morath responded, pointing to year-over-year increases in per-pupil funding in Houston and across the state.

He argued that Houston ISD hasn't properly allocated those resources.

Progressive political empowerment threatens conservative control

Political scientist Domingo Morel is the author of Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy, which examined more than 100 similar situations across the country.

"Throughout the 1960s, as the national government begins to promote a civil rights agenda and cities are increasingly becoming majority African American and then being led by African Americans, there’s this kind of coalition that’s created between these cities — Black leaders and progressives in cities — and the national government," he said. "And to break that coalition apart, conservatives start to develop their political power at the state level."

One tool to break apart networks of local political power: state intervention in democratic systems at the city level, from elections to law enforcement to education.

Morel argued that state takeovers of school districts rarely improved academic or financial situations, but often undercut the hard-won political power of marginalized groups in urban areas.

Pennsylvania took control of Philadelphia schools in 2001 in response to a massive budget deficit and lackluster academic performance. From 1989 to 2004, New Jersey seized control of schools in three cities, including Newark, which regained local control more than two decades later. Louisiana took control of schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, closing many and ceding control to charter networks.

In some cases, standardized test scores did improve, but analysts disagreed about what fueled that growth; in many cases, per-pupil funding also increased after the takeover. In all examples, local voters lost control over education.

Loss of power for one group usually means an increase in power for another. After some takeovers, Morel observed, growing Latino communities saw gains as longstanding Black communities suffered setbacks.

"Within Houston, there may be groups that are seeking to exploit this to gain their political power," he said. "So, it stands to reason that whites would be winners in this particular situation — that they’re looking to gain political power."

The takeover also has statewide implications.

"People of color represent the majority in the state of Texas ... but at the state legislative level, they’re in the minority," he said. "And so the way to create political power across the state is through the cities — Houston, San Antonio, Dallas ... Because the schools are such an important part of the political power at the city level, when you take away the schools, you take away the power to the city as well. And then you start to really curtail that community’s power — not only at the city level, but then eventually at the state level."

Democratic State Representative Ron Reynolds opposes TEA's move.

"It will hurt our public schools," he said. "I do believe that this is going to be to the detriment of black and brown communities, and I’m very concerned about it — but I think it’s inevitable."

"We’re going to continue to fight and push back against it," he continued. "But at the end of the day, Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Patrick, and the Republicans are in charge."

He and other Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation to stave off the takeover, though he acknowledged the bills are unlikely to become law.

"I’m a realist," he said. "I would love for it to pass idealistically. But realistically, with the posture of the Republicans in charge, I do not believe that we will be successful ... Based upon the current climate — the voucher fights that are about to happen, and the position that my colleagues in the leadership seem to be taking on public schools."

While takeover opponents see the move as a cynical, unnecessary powergrab, education commissioner Morath argued he is legally required to take action — and that the change in governance will improve outcomes.

"This is solely about students," said. "What must be true for kids in Houston — all kids in Houston, not just some kids in Houston — is they have got to be provided the resource environment that supports the structures that allow them to flourish, that allow them to succeed."

State law requires the education commissioner to take action when a school fails to meet state standards for multiple years. If other districts have even one campus that fails to pass state accountability ratings for long enough, they could face the same fate as Houston ISD.