“I’ve heard lots of comments from people, particularly even some legislators, about the issue in Harris County and regarding HISD and the takeover,” said Dutton. “There’s some people who stood up and said this is a plot by Greg Abbott to take over the schools and put all the people in it that he wanted to run it.”
“I looked at [him] and said, that actually came from Harold Dutton.”
Dutton’s comments follow a recent Supreme Court of Texas decision to reverse a lower court judgment that blocked the Texas Commissioner of Education from taking over HISD for nearly three years.
During the 2015 legislative session, Dutton co-authored legislation requiring the commissioner to appoint a board of managers to govern a district failing to meet standards even after other intervention plans had been implemented.
In 2019, a Texas Education Agency (TEA) investigation concluded that several HISD board members had violated the Open Meetings Act and state laws related to contracting, all while district schools struggled to meet student achievement standards. Wheatley High School in particular had incurred “F” ratings every year between 2013 and 2019 but had not been rated in 2018 due to the impact of Hurricane Harvey.
Although Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath initiated proceedings to replace the elected board of trustees with an appointed board of managers, the district sued in early 2020, arguing that Morath had exceeded his authority under the 2015 legislation. A lower court issued an injunction against Morath and the state agency while the courts considered the case.
The injunction blocking TEA action prompted Dutton and state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) to both introduce legislation in 2021 to address legal ambiguities identified in the HISD case, with Bettencourt’s Senate Bill (SB) 1365 receiving final approval from both chambers.
As a graduate of Wheatley High School, Dutton told the audience on Tuesday that he had first noticed a drop in the achievement of the school’s graduates beginning in the 1980s.
“Wheatly was a symptom of the problem. When I looked at the middle schools and I looked at the elementary schools, I found that they were failing also,” said Dutton, adding that he began looking for state legislative solutions after school trustees were unresponsive to his concerns.
After the 2015 legislation became law, Dutton says he never thought the state would actually have to implement a takeover of the district.
“I thought they would fix the school, but what happened was HISD did nothing, Kashmere failed more, and Wheatley High School … failed even more.”
Dutton, who has represented his northeast Houston district in the Texas House since 1985 and served as chairman of the House Public Education Committee in 2021, offered his comments on an education panel of state lawmakers.
Other legislators participating in the discussion were Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), Rep. Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian), and Rep. Carrie Isaac (R-Wimberly).
The legislators also discussed the possibility of enacting school choice legislation that could allow parents to use state education funds to pay for private or home school options, with Creighton, Harrison, and Isaac voicing support for programs such as education savings accounts.
Creighton, recently appointed chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, announced last year he would introduce legislation establishing a Texas Parental Bill of Rights and a Texas Teacher Bill of Rights.
Creighton, Harrison, and Isaac also expressed support for legislation similar to Florida’s law prohibiting teaching about sexual orientation or gender ideology to young children, with Creighton adding that Texas should ban such teaching at least through eighth grade.
“I get irritated when I hear ‘maybe fifth grade, maybe eighth grade,’” noted Isaac. “Why are we talking about gender ideology and sexual preference in our schools? Why are we even talking about that?”
Regarding parental objections to sexually explicit or otherwise controversial materials in public schools, Dutton suggested a compromise might be to place such materials in a restricted area only accessible to students with parental permission.
“I am not aware of a single book that a single elected official in Texas has proposed a ban on,” said Harrison. “There is not a book banning proposal in Texas, full stop. And people need to learn the difference between a local school board choosing not to spend tax dollars on pornography for children and banning books.”
Dutton said he recognized the differences in ideas, but emphasized student achievement.
“I find it somewhat contradictory that we are talking about … books and what students see and read, but on the other hand we’re talking about … only 30 percent of our children being able to read.”
“At the end of the day, we ought to come together to figure out how to arrive at a conclusion that makes Texas a better place to live and work and raise a family.”
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan 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.