87th LegislatureEducationState HouseState SenateHouston ISD Turmoil Prompts Legislative Fixes for Public School Accountability System

An ongoing legal battle in Houston ISD has prompted the state legislature to approve revisions to the state’s public education A-F accountability system.
May 31, 2021
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With the clock running out on the 2021 legislative session, last weekend lawmakers gave final approval to tweaks to the Texas public education accountability system, sending the measure to the governor’s desk.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) introduced Senate Bill (SB) 1365 in response to an ongoing court battle regarding the potential state takeover of troubled Houston Independent School District (HISD). On Saturday the Texas Senate approved a House amended version of the bill with 20 ayes to 11 nays.

In 2019 a Texas Education Agency (TEA) investigation alleged several HISD board members had violated the Open Meetings Act and state laws related to contracting, all while district schools struggled to meet performance standards and at least one, Wheatley High School, had failed to meet standards since 2013.

After TEA Commissioner Mike Morath initiated proceedings under state law to replace the elected board of trustees with a board of managers, the district sued, arguing that Morath had exceeded his authority. After a judge dismissed the case from the federal court system, a state judge issued an injunction blocking TEA action. The injunction has since been upheld by the Third District Court of Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court.

In upholding the injunction, the appellate court said that Morath had misconstrued state laws regarding the investigation into HISD board misconduct and that a conservator placed in the district should have only had jurisdiction over one school with consistent “F” ratings, even though multiple district schools were struggling with consistent “D” ratings. 

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The court also called into question the assessment of Wheatley High School’s status since although the school had incurred failed ratings every year between 2013 and 2019, the school was not rated in 2018 due to Hurricane Harvey. Therefore, the court concluded that the gap year reset the timeline and did not trigger a state takeover. 

Bettencourt’s legislation addresses these issues in several ways. Regarding TEA investigations, SB 1365 specifically provides subpoena authority for TEA investigations and states that the authority of a conservator extends beyond a failing school to the entire district under sanctions.

“SB1365 makes a major difference because it makes it clear Conservators can override Local Boards of Trustees’ decisions as necessary. It is a very important bill for students, parents and ISDs in Texas, not just HISD where issues have existed for nearly a decade,” said Bettencourt in a press release. 

In addition, the bill clarifies that schools may receive “not rated” status during times of disasters including the COVID-19 pandemic, but that the “not rated” designation only pauses but does not reset the performance rating count. 

Other portions of SB 1365 more specifically provide an avenue for ISDs to appeal TEA decisions in their local district courts, rather than forcing an appeal into Travis County courts. The revisions also require TEA to follow the state’s due process laws in conducting investigations and issuing sanctions.

The bill further tweaks the A through F accountability system for schools in addressing what some legislators have called the “D-F wobble,” which allowed some schools to avoid sanctions with a “D” rating. SB 1365 clarifies that a “D” rating is considered officially in need of improvement, and that districts incurring three consecutive years of “D” ratings will draw the same sanctions or extra support as a campus with one year of an “F” rating.

“What the legislature is doing is restoring all the reforms that have been made in the Public Education system for the last 4 years, because of a twisted Third Court of Appeals ruling, striking down the A-F reform and other actions that has passed in a bipartisan matter over the past few years,” said Bettencourt. 

“This legislation ensures students get a quality education and don’t have to stay at a school that is failing improvement requests year after year with no accountability,” he added.

House sponsor for the legislation Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood) last week explained that the amended version of SB 1365 gave schools a reprieve for pandemic year learning losses.

“Without the passage of Senate Bill 1365, schools will be expected to show two years of learning in nine months, during 2021-22, and will be penalized by the accountability system accordingly,” Huberty told his fellow house members.

Huberty also explained that the amended version did not directly address Houston ISD or the still pending lawsuit between the district and Morath over a potential state takeover of the state’s largest ISD. He did note that the new language strengthened the TEA’s authority to investigate public schools and vaguely referenced recent allegations against the state’s largest public charter school network.

Last week the House approved the amended measure with bipartisan support and a vote of 111 ayes to 34 nays.

Bettencourt thanked Huberty as well as Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and education committee chairs Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) and Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) for promoting the bill and praised the bipartisan support of the changes.

“SB1365 is a good bipartisan public policy and makes the process clear and intentional when there are failing schools, so students don’t get left behind,” Bettencourt said.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.