People hold up signs at a news conference on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Houston while protesting the proposed takeover of the city's school district by the Texas Education Agency.
( Juan A. Lozano
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Earlier this month, the Texas Education Commissioner, Mike Morath who's an appointee of Texas's Republican Governor, Greg Abbott, announced that the agency will take over the Houston Independent School District by replacing the superintendent and the district's elected board of trustees. The state will appoint a new superintendent and a new board, and according to the state, the appointed board will remain in place for at least two years.
With an enrollment of about 200,000 students, the Houston Independent School District is the largest in Texas and the eighth-largest school district in the country. Joining me now is Josephine Lee, reporter for the Texas Observer. Josephine, thanks for joining us here on The Takeaway.
Josephine Lee: Thanks, Melissa, for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In this March 15th letter that was informing the Houston Independent of the takeover, Morath cited, "unacceptable academic accountability ratings at Phillis Wheatley High School." Can you tell me what's going on with that?
Josephine Lee: The fact of the matter is that they actually passed the accountability ratings these past two years. HISD has a 88% or a B in the accountability ratings but yet they still took over the school district. They first announced this in 2019, and after a very protracted battle, the HISD tried to sue and [unintelligible 00:01:37], but earlier this year the Texas Supreme Court greenlighted their move. They have now taken over the largest school district in Texas.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're telling me that Wheatley actually passed. Aren't there 50 high schools in this district? Even if Wheatley had not been performing at the academic accountability ratings standard, how would that allow for a takeover of the entire district?
Josephine Lee: Unfortunately, in the law it allows the state to take over the whole district even if it's just one school that did not pass the accountability ratings for a few years. There's almost 300 schools in the entire district. They're taking over the entire district based on the accountability ratings of one school, even though that one school passed the accountability ratings in the past few years. It is very egregious. I hope to be talking about what's behind that because it is really not to lift up those schools in our districts but really to disenfranchise voters in the communities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk about exactly that. If this is not about so-called performance standards, what is this about?
Josephine Lee: Basically, they've been involved in the power grab, especially between the state and local urban districts. What this did was that it effectively disenfranchised voters who voted for our school board trustees. Now, instead, they're planning to replace our superintendent. They're planning to replace the school board members with a board of managers. If you think about Houston, it's the most diversity in Texas and I believe one of the most in the nation. Those who will be affected are going to be disproportionately the low-income communities of color, and they have been the ones who have really been taking the lead in protesting the takeover.
A lot of community members are concerned that this is basically a Trojan Horse to school privatization. In my article, I focus on the school of focus, which is Wheatley High School and how in the past few years this school that produced Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, George Foreman, all these famous musicians, really in the past few years has seen a lot of struggle because of the charter schools that have surrounded the school. This is a state that has allowed charter schools to proliferate all across the state.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Josephine, hold for me right on that idea because I want to dig into that with you, but we do need to take a very quick break here. More about Texas's State takeover of the Houston Independent School District in just one moment. It's The Takeaway. You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and we've been talking with Texas Observer reporter Josephine Lee about Texas State's takeover of the Houston Independent School District, the largest, and as Josephine was pointing out, the most diverse school district in the state which enrolls nearly 200,000 students.
Josephine, walk us through. As you point out in your article, you're focusing on Wheatley but the ways in which Wheatley has become embattled as a public school. Help us to understand that.
Josephine Lee: In recent years, particularly, there's a charter school called YES Prep. They've been siphoning the top-performing students. They will cherry-pick students from those schools and then also kick out students who have disciplinary issues who don't perform well on these state standardized tests. Wheatley receives students as a neighborhood public school. You have to educate all students no matter their background. In my article, I talked about how Wheatley teaches far higher rates of at-risk students, ESL students, students with special needs.
Really, at a time where the state should be commending the teachers and commending the school for having taught all these students and have weathered the pandemic, improved their learning, instead, they're taking over the school and telling teachers and schools that they have "failed." We see a similar dynamic in other low-income communities where there's these charter schools popping up around the school and it's creating these deep inequalities between the schools and between communities. In my article, I pointed to a 2019 state audit.
In the state audit, this was released only days after they had initially announced the takeover in 2019. The state had recommended to close 39 neighborhood public schools. They cited it as being "underutilized" but they had seen declining enrollment because of the charter schools that had been draining their resources. In Texas, charters only teach 6% of students but they use nearly a fifth of all the public education money. Now community members are concerned that the takeover will just mean more charters, more privatization, and deepening inequalities in our communities.
Then also, at the same time, you can see how our state governor has been pushing the privatization and the dismantling of our public school system through also efforts to push school vouchers. It's very clear what the state agenda is.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Having lived in post-Katrina New Orleans, I am extremely familiar with how this works in terms of state takeover of public schools, this apples-to-oranges comparison where charter schools are said to be higher performing, when in fact they simply are serving a very different group of students. In this context, there's also this piece that I have to say gives me this rumble in my stomach around Flint, Michigan.
When you talk about state takeover of a key institution that will now no longer be under the democratically elected authority of parents, community members, those who live there in Houston, can you talk to me about what the key differences are likely to be in these state controllers of the system versus those who were chosen by the people whose children and neighbors and colleagues and friends go to these and teach at these schools?
Josephine Lee: The Texas Education Agency Commissioner, Mike Morath has told the public he is going to select a board of managers but it will be locally controlled, but everyone knows and can see through his ploy. He is the one who selects the board of managers. They are beholden to him. It's very different from, you have voters in all these different communities electing their own school board trustee who will be accountable to them.
Here, we are going to have a board of managers, a superintendent, selected by Mike Morath who will be there, he says, at least two years, but in reality, it can be indefinite. It's very scary to think that we can have this unelected board of managers for an indefinite time period.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you also connect this or is this connected to other things that we have seen coming out of Texas relative to education, book bans, questions about what is and is not taught in schools, and of course, policies that make it harder for trans kids simply to exist?
Josephine Lee: Right now, under the guise of "parental rights" Governor Greg Abbott and state legislatures have been pushing these very regressive proposals. I'll just mention an example. SB 8 is one bill that they're pushing. It's a voucher bill that will essentially take public money for parents to be using in private schools. It's estimated to drain $3 billion from our state revenue. Also embedded in that law is our provisions to allow parents to "direct the moral and religious study of children in public schools" but ironically enough, not in private schools.
It's blurring the line between a state and religion. Then also, at the same time, we see all these very regressive bills attacking trans students in schools, restricting teachers' rights to teach history or to teach certain history, to teach asexual education. Right now, we can see that that is the state agenda and what a takeover might mean directly under the state. That's why so many Texans have been fighting that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Josephine Lee is a reporter for the Texas Observer. Josephine, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.
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