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The TEA takes over Houston schools this summer. What happens in the meantime?

The Texas Education Agency plans to seize control of Houston public schools this summer. The move is drawing mixed reactions from community members, many of whom say the district is doing well and doesn’t need state intervention. 


A group of protesters gathers outside Houston ISD headquarters on Feb. 2, 2023, to express opposition to a state takeover of the HISD school board.


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Back in early February, protestors gathered outside the Houston Independent School District administration building.

"HISD is not for sale!" they chanted.

"The State of Texas has no business removing our democratically elected school board and our vote," said organizer and former educator Alpa Sridharan.

"You know how petty the State of Texas is?" she continued. "They’re trying to take over based on the STAAR performance of a single school in the aftermath of Harvey."

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She was talking about Wheatley High School in Houston's Fifth Ward. That's the school at the center of the battle for control. It failed to meet state standards for several years.

The poor performance at Wheatley, combined with alleged illegal activity by the former school board, prompted the Texas Education Agency to launch the takeover in 2019. Houston ISD sued, and the state Supreme Court ruled in the agency's favor in January of this year.

This month, Houston ISD said that its legal options were exhausted. Trustee Elizabeth Santos spoke before the board voted 8-1 to end the court fight.

"This battle is over, but our fight for democracy and public education will never be over," she said.

This week, the TEA announced it was moving ahead with the takeover.

Democratic Houston State Representative Harold Dutton and other lawmakers from the area were briefed about the plan shortly before it was announced on Wednesday.

Dutton was a primary proponent of the state law that allowed that move to happen.

"What this is about is changing the outcome for thousands and thousands of kids, particularly those in northeast Houston," he said after the briefing. "And so while people are beating me up and beating up the commissioner and saying all kinds of crazy things, at the end of the day, failing schools destroys this democracy.

But other Democratic lawmakers disagreed. Houston-area state representative Ron Reynolds chairs the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

"We’re extremely disappointed," he said. "We’re outraged. This is a dark day for HISD."

The Greater Houston Coalition for Justice announced on Thursday that it would file a federal complaint with the Department of Education on behalf of Houston ISD, arguing that the Texas Education Agency engaged in discrimination by moving ahead with the takeover. U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston has also called for a federal investigation into the takeover.

The takeover will transfer control of the state's largest school district from locally elected board members to a group of state-appointed managers.

"They’re only accountable to TEA; they’re not accountable to the community," Reynolds said. "There’s no real accountability to the parents, to students and other stakeholders."

Reynolds and other takeover opponents point to Houston ISD's improvement on state accountability ratings over the past few years. More than three quarters of the schools that previously didn't meet standards received passing grades last school year.

That includes Wheatley High, which moved from an F to a C.

Phyllis Wheatley High School

Nyla McCullum is a senior at Wheatley.

"A number doesn’t make a person, so how can the letter F make a school?" she asked.

She said the ratings system doesn't capture everything schools have to offer — or all of the socioeconomic challenges faced by students.

"This is very overwhelming — just to see like your hard work crumbling into pieces slowly but surely," she said. "At the end of the day, they are on the outside looking inside, and they do not know how hard kids at Wheatley really work. We do more than just go to school ... playing sports, working, and coming to school and getting there on time isn’t an easy task, but we still make it happen."

Education Commissioner Mike Morath — who runs the TEA — said schools like Wheatley will be better supported after the takeover.

"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," he said.

He argued the district receives plenty of money from the state, and that Houston ISD, as a system, has failed to allocate those dollars properly.

Dani Hernandez is president of the Houston ISD school board.

FILE: HISD board member, Daniela "Dani" Hernandez (District III), sworn-in on January 16th, 2020.

"I think that the state could always fund schools more efficiently and provide more money for public schools," she said. "I know that Texas is one of the states that has the least amount of funding per school."

Funding is top of mind right now. The 9-member elected board and the superintendent are entering the springtime budgeting sessions. Even without a looming takeover, the process wouldn't be easy.

"There’s a lot of challenges right now," Herndez said, including $2 billion in deferred maintenance, the looming fiscal cliff as federal dollars from the pandemic run out and a growing budget deficit, projected to reach $217 million in the 2025 school year.

Budgeting will be an awkward process. The board and superintendent will be replaced in the coming months and, in the meantime, the TEA has a conservator in place who can tell them what to do.

"As of right now, we don’t have any directives over the budget," Hernandez said. "But I am unaware or unsure if that will be coming in the next couple of weeks or so."

A TEA spokesperson confirmed conservator Doris Delaney is able to issue budget-related directives.

"The conservator may issue directives related to the budgeting process," he wrote, but under state law "the conservator ‘may not adopt a budget for the district that provides for spending a different amount, exclusive of required debt service, from that previously adopted by the board of trustees.'"

The agency did not comment on whether there are any plans to intervene in the budgeting process before June.

The TEA is now accepting applications for the board of managers and planning a series of town halls in Houston. State lawmakers from the Houston area will provide input on candidates, and a public decision is expected around June 1.

Duncan Klussmann was superintendent in Spring Branch ISD and is now with the University of Houston's College of Education.

As he pointed out, the board of managers will face a first-of-its kind situation in Houston ISD.

"It’s the largest district in the state of Texas," he said. "Most districts that have been taken over have been medium size, if not very small districts, so it is definitely unprecedented."

"And it will now be the responsibility of TEA," he continued. "If the system performs or not, they’re now responsible because they’ve now taken control of the system moving forward."

Klussmann expects the board of managers to examine the current decentralization in the district. Principals tend to be the captains of their own ships, with a high level of autonomy over how to use their budgets and set instructional policies.

"And I think there’s a belief that there needs to be more centralization around the curriculum — what’s being taught, how it’s being taught, the instructional materials that are used to teach it," he said. "And that would be a more centralized approach where those decisions don’t lie with the campus leaders independently — they really would be made at Central Office, and then campus leaders would be expected to implement those different approaches."

Next week, students and teachers in Houston ISD will come back to classrooms from spring break. The last day of classes is May 31. By the time they return in August, the district could be different.

The Texas Newsroom's Sergio Martínez-Beltrán contributed to this report.

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Dominic Anthony Walsh

Education & Families Reporter

Dominic Anthony Walsh covers education & families for Houston Public Media's enterprise team. His work examines the institutions and policies affecting millions of students and families across Texas, with a focus on Houston — home to the largest school district in the state. He comes to the Bayou City after...

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