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Texas Schools Trade Books for Discipline

know your facts Aug 02, 2023
the back of a Texas school bus

In June the Texas Education Agency (TEA) took over the Houston Independent School District (ISD), replacing elected school board members with state appointed managers. Those managers hold immense power just like the elected board - controlling the budget, school closures, collaborations with charter networks, policies around curriculum and library books, as well as hiring/firing the superintendent. The new leaders were sworn in without public notice or access.


The state government has stepped in because they say:

  • the district has long failed to meet state academic standards,
  • the school board has been operating in a dysfunctional manner, and
  • the district has struggled to comply with federal special education laws.

The District

According to the Houston Independent School District website, it is “the largest school district in Texas and the eighth-largest in the United States. It serves over 189,000 students at 274 campuses and is one of the largest employers in Houston, with about 27,000 team members.”

Houston ISD is 40% Hispanic, 25% Black, 25% White, and 5% Asian. This is important because when I hear about school systems being taken over by the state, it’s usually a district where white students are in the minority.

The Plan

At a time when libraries and books are under attack, the new Superintendent Mike Miles has announced a plan to eliminate libraries at 28 underperforming schools (including librarian and library tech positions) and replace them with discipline centers among other things. Students who have behavior problems in class could be sent to the new “Team Centers” to continue their classwork virtually from the former library.

The district is evaluating 57 other school libraries on a case-by-case basis. Supposedly, the libraries will be available to students before and after school.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, “You don’t close libraries in some of the schools in your most underserved communities, and you’re keeping libraries open in other schools.”

Under the “New Education System,” teachers and principals must reapply for their jobs and may not be accepted into the same positions even if they already have a contract for the coming school year. This is part of a restructuring process to ensure that each underperforming school has the same staffing model, pay grades, and evaluation measures.

Miles is also cutting 500-600 jobs to “right-size” the central office, which he described as bloated. He said administrative expenditures have increased 61% in six years.

What Has to Happen for an Elected School Board to be Reinstated

The school system must meet 3 goals:

  • Schools must meet state standards. Some of the schools that are struggling to meet state standards are in poor communities that have had slow recoveries from the damage done by extreme weather, like Hurricane Harvey in 2017. According to Houston Public Media, 9 campuses in the Houston ISD failed to meet state standards in the 2021-22 school year compared to 40 in the 2018-19 school year.
  • The new board must focus on student outcomes. They will have to set goals based on how many students are meeting or mastering their grade level academics, not how many pass state or federal tests. Some critics have said the goals are fine, but don’t consider the things that schools can’t fix – like access to healthcare, good nutrition, and affordable housing, all things that affect a student’s ability to learn.
  • The district must comply with state and federal laws protecting students with disabilities. Two conservators were appointed by TEA in 2020, identifying 26 areas for progress. The district was on track for only 9 of the 26 measures in March of 2023.

Could It Work?

I’m not the only one side-eyeing this plan of action. Parents and students protested the takeover this spring. The Edvocate published an article in 2017 outlining how state takeovers of school districts are often disastrous. In 2021 they released a study that upholds their position from 2017. The study focused on 35 school districts across the country that were taken over by states between 2011 and 2016. The takeovers often happened in small cities and affected mostly Black and Hispanic students from low-income families. In the first few years after the takeover, schools generally saw dips in English test scores. By the fourth year, there was no effect one way or the other. In math, there were no clear effects at all. There were variations, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule.

My Thoughts

While it seems like the Houston ISD may need some support with meeting state and federal disability laws, the schools seem to be meeting state academic standards on their own. For the school system to reduce the number of schools that don’t meet state standards from 40 to 9 within three academic years following a devastating hurricane seems like they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. If students didn’t have adequate housing, had to stay home to take care of ailing parents and support the family in other ways, why punish them for a temporary drop in academic achievement?

I understand how taking students with behavior problems out of the classroom can make it easier for teachers to maintain control of the class. But I wonder what it will do to those students to participate virtually from another room while they see their classmates learning together. This isn’t like zooming in from home. They’re being sent down the hall to watch the lesson online.

The fact that this plan was created without input from the Department of Education, teachers, administrators, or families makes me wonder how successful it can be. The appointees didn’t make basic efforts to build trust and get buy-in from the people they expect to change.

What do you think?

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