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Fight Intensifies Over Future Of Struggling Houston Schools, District

Advocates and parents renewed their call for a lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency at a crowded town hall this weekend.

Leaders with Journey for Justice Alliance, Black Lives Matter Houston, HISD Parent Advocates and other groups organized a town hall this weekend.
Leaders with Journey for Justice Alliance, Black Lives Matter Houston, HISD Parent Advocates and other groups organized a town hall this weekend.

As lawmakers head into the Texas legislative session this week, tensions have intensified over the future of Houston schools and the threat of a state takeover of the Houston Independent School District due to chronically low-performing schools.

It’s included a bizarre press conference with the outgoing Harris County Treasurer, who called for a state takeover and got doused with water by a protestor; a scathing tweet from Gov. Greg Abbott calling HISD leadership a “joke” and a “disaster;” and a crowded town hall where advocates and parents renewed their call for a lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency.

Right now we are focused on holding off the takeover,” said Kandice Webber with Black Lives Matters and one of the town hall organizers.

“We need to sue the TEA. There are no if’s, and’s or but’s about it and we need to get the school board involved in that fight. It’s what the community wants and it’s what our kids deserve, so that is our big push,” she said.

The threat of a state takeover stems from a state law, known as HB 1842 and passed in 2015. It requires the state’s Education Commissioner to close schools or replace the entire elected school board if even one public school has failed state standards for five or more years. A separate law, known as SB 1882 and passed in 2017, gives a school board a two-year pause on those sanctions if they temporarily give financial and administrative control of the struggling schools to an outside group, such as a charter school network or nonprofit.

Last year, HISD had 10 schools that could trigger the state takeover. This year, four are on the watch list: Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools.

In December, the Houston school board considered requesting proposals from outside groups to temporarily manage those schools. A nonprofit organized by Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office wanted to partner with the district and manage them, similar to a partnership model used in Los Angeles. The board decided 5-4 not to request any proposals — though it has until Feb. 4 to send any partnership proposal to the state.

That timeline was already creating pressure.

But Abbott’s tweet has intensified the debate. The governor said that the board’s “self-centered ineptitude has failed the children they are supposed to educate. If ever there was a school board that needs to be taken over and reformed it’s HISD. Their students & parents deserve change.”

HISD board members have pushed back against that criticism. 

In response to Abbott, HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said on social media that it’s “sad governing by tweet has become acceptable. Disappointing that opinion has replaced facts.”

She pointed to the fact that 91 percent of HISD schools meet standard and the number of schools requiring improvement has dropped from dozens to just four.

“I’m a getting a little tired of HISD being the piñata district in our state when in reality we have a lot of great things in our district,” said Sergio Lira after a similar call by former Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez.

However, some Houston parents have said that it’s hard to disagree with Abbott’s assessment of the board’s performance. One of them, Heather Golden, posted on Twitter that trustees aren’t serving kids and something must change.

At the town hall held Saturday in Kashmere Gardens, there also was a strong push for change: to promote more equity in public schools instead of school choice.

Jitu Brown, a community organizer from the Chicago’s south side and with the Journey for Justice Alliance, compared what’s happening in Houston to efforts to close schools or privatize public education in cities like Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit and New Jersey.

“School choice is a scam,” Brown said, urging the crowd to chant along.

Over 100 people, including parents, educators and community members joined the town hall. Among them was Telicia Fogle-Simon. She grew up in the neighborhood and graduated from Kashmere High School. Fogle-Simon, a former teacher and now a nonprofit director, said that she came with questions about Kashmere’s future and left the three-hour meeting hopeful.

“Working with the community organizers I believe that the fight to keep our schools open and not close them and have privatization come in is actually going to be able to be successful,” she said.

What happens to the future of the schools and HISD as a whole depends on a mix of factors, including how the four struggling schools perform this academic year; what the board decides to do with them or with the TEA; and if lawmakers revise the trigger law, or make other changes in the new legislative session.

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Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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