Two years ago at the height of the pandemic, Ivona Washington moved from Los Angeles to Houston with her family and enrolled at Lamar High School ahead of her junior year. Lamar has a majority Black and Latinx student population, with about half of students considered “economically disadvantaged.” The school is also considered successful: 95.9% of students graduate in four years, and the school earned a “B” accountability rating for the 2018-2019 school year. But Washington, now 17 years old and a senior, can’t wait to graduate. She’s worried about a controversial decision that would transfer control of Lamar, and all schools in Houston Independent School District (HISD), from elected school board members to the state, disregarding the voices of students and community members like Washington.
On March 15, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) announced a state takeover of HISD, which would remove the existing elected school board and superintendent and replace them with a board of state-appointed managers in early June of this year. In a letter to the superintendent and school board, TEA Commissioner of Education Mike Morath cited three reasons for the state’s decision: consistently low academic performance at Wheatley High School, illegal activity by former school board members, and the two-year appointment of a conservator at Kashmere High School.
While TEA asserts that its decision is necessary to revive Texas’s largest school district, parents, students, and teachers warn of a long effort by the state to exert control over diverse Houston schools. Community members argue that a takeover isn’t necessary given the improvement that HISD schools have made over the past few years and that the decision will only harm students in the long run and discriminate against Black, brown, and disabled students.
“It’s very unpatriotic of Texas to do,” Washington said. “There are so many other things that we should be worried about when it comes to students instead of testing.”
In announcing the takeover of Texas’s largest school district, the state contributes to a history of questionable efforts to manage public education. The first state takeover of local public schools in the U.S. occurred in 1989, when New Jersey seized control of Jersey City Public Schools, enabled by education reforms in the 1980s. Since then, 22 states have initiated state takeovers of over 100 school districts, to mixed results: From 1999 to 2016, the state of Michigan controlled Detroit Public Schools through a series of state-appointed officials. By the time a new school board was elected in 2017, the district had closed dozens of schools and accrued nearly $300 million in long-term debt. These results are mirrored in Philadelphia: After 16 years of state oversight, Philadelphia was left with school closures, slashed funding, and educational buildings falling apart at the seams.
State impositions on local public education also have a disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities. About 85% of state takeovers across the country occur in majority Black or brown districts, including the School District of Philadelphia and Detroit Public Schools. Researcher Domingo Morel writes that school board elections have historically been a gateway for the political participation of marginalized groups—when the power of elected officials is stripped from them, these communities lose their voice.
For the past decade, Texas state legislators have been laying the groundwork for state control of the eighth largest school district in the country, HISD, in which 84% of students are Black or Latinx, and 79% of students are “economically disadvantaged.” In 2015, Texas passed a law that triggers either a state takeover or a school closure if a campus receives a failing accountability grade from TEA for five years in a row.
Wheatley High School met that threshold in 2019, but HISD delayed the takeover with a lawsuit against TEA. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed the injunction in January 2023, and HISD dropped the suit. In the years since Wheatley’s TEA score mandated a takeover, the school has bumped their rating from an F to a C, and the school district has improved their ratings as a whole—now, 94% of HISD schools earn an A, B, or C score. Despite this improvement, community members feel powerless to stop the dismantling of their school board this summer.
Ruth Kravetz knows this better than anyone. She’s the mother of two HISD graduates, and she taught in the district for 30 years. In 2012, Kravetz co-founded Community Voices for Public Education (CVPE), a collective of teachers and parents that advocates for meeting student needs with equitable funding and smaller class sizes, fairly compensated and respected teachers, and limited high-risk standardized testing.
Audrey Nath joined CVPE a few weeks ago when she first heard about the state takeover. Nath is the parent of a kindergartener enrolled in Wharton Dual Language Academy in HISD, a bilingual magnet school in HISD. She felt blindsided by the state takeover because nobody in her community seemed to support it.
“I have not met a single parent at playgrounds, or playdates, or on group text messages, or WhatsApp or Facebook groups who is actually in favor of this,” Nath said. “Most either didn’t even realize it was happening, or were confused.”
While Kravetz and Nath appreciate the community they’ve found in CVPE, they’re tired.
“We’ve been fighting this for five years, so we’ve just been doing endless, 10-hour days for two-and-a-half months,” Kravetz said. “Plus, I teach.”
Part of what’s so overwhelming is that the state takeover is not an isolated attempt to exert control over Texas schools. Since 2021, Texas’s legislature has been inundated with restrictive bills that aim to limit discussions of sexuality and gender identity in schools, ban medical care for trans youth, and prohibit historically accurate education about race and oppression. To organizers, parents, and teachers like Kravetz, the state takeover feels like the latest step in a state-sponsored agenda to further marginalize queer students, disabled students, and students of color.
As she looks forward to graduation from Lamar High School, Washington can’t help but feel that her school is headed down the wrong path. She says that the last of her concerns is her classmates performing well in Texas’s rigorous standardized testing system—she’s worried about her friends’ mental health, addiction to drugs, STIs, and access to resources. If the state cracks down on test scores without addressing inequity in schools, the whole city will suffer, starting with Black and brown youth.
“Kids will drop out,” Washington said plainly. “I know they will. I can feel it.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents most of Houston in Congress, has called on the Biden administration to open a civil rights investigation into the state takeover, but in the meantime, students, parents, and teachers are left in limbo. Still, after over a decade of organizing, Kravetz isn’t done yet.
“Instead of lamenting [the takeover], which is harmful to the future of our democracy, [communities] can gather together in ways that work for them,” Kravetz said. “No matter where somebody lives in the country, saying, ‘Enough is enough, and I oppose this takeover of the public education system in one of the largest cities in the country, in the largest city in the state.’”