87th LegislatureEducationState Pursues Takeover of Houston ISD in Court After Texas Legislature Gives Green Light

A newly passed bill should let the TEA replace Houston ISD's entire school board, changing the course of an ongoing lawsuit.
September 7, 2021
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Ethics violations and below-average student achievement at Houston ISD, especially Wheatley High School, led the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to set a conservator over the district.

A court ruling blocked the TEA from replacing the entire district’s school board with appointed trustees, leading the legislature to intervene.

Senate Bill (SB) 1365 passed the Texas legislature with bipartisan support and took effect September 1. Now, the bill has begun nosing its way into arguments at the Supreme Court of Texas, where the legislature hopes it will help overturn the injunction that shields Houston ISD from a state takeover.

When a school fails its performance rating, a metric intended to gauge student success, then the TEA can appoint a conservator to oversee the school’s management. SB 1365 says that state-appointed conservators have authority over the entire district, not just a single F-rated school.

Furthermore, while previous law only allowed state interventions in schools with F grades, SB 1365 allows interventions in districts with schools that consistently stay in the “wobble zone” between D and F, like a number of schools in Houston ISD. Schools that have earned a D for the past three years are subject to state intervention under the bill.

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The bill’s sponsors, such as state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) and Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), have framed it as a clarification of the TEA’s authority and a direct refutation of the court ruling that stopped intervention at Houston ISD.

In the wake of historically poor scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), Bettencourt said the injunction that prevented a takeover also harmed chances of STAAR improvement at Houston ISD.

“The disruptions caused by COVID-19 have contributed to the most significant learning loss we have ever measured. Had the courts not interfered, our plan to improve support for 200,000-plus students in Houston ISD would have been in place before Coronavirus began,” Bettencourt stated.

The court injunction that stopped the attempted district takeover came out of the Texas Third Court of Appeals from a lawsuit between Houston ISD and the TEA. That case is now in the Supreme Court of Texas, where the TEA recently argued that the bill allows the district takeover.

“Whatever the proper interpretation of the old law, the Commissioner has the statutory authority to appoint a board of managers under the new law,” the state wrote.

“Because HISD has had a conservator assigned for at least two consecutive school years, [the Texas Education Code] authorizes the Commissioner to appoint a board of managers to exercise the powers and duties of HISD’s board of trustees.”

Bipartisan support doesn’t always mean a lack of controversy. Reflecting one facet of the ongoing local versus state debate in Texas politics, Dutton, a Wheatley High School graduate, sparred with other Democrats over fears of state infringement on local district control during discussion of the bill. Dutton also filed a similar bill with the same intent that fellow Houston Democrat Rep. Alma Allen (D-Houston) killed, leading Dutton to revive and pass a Republican priority bill through his committee “as a consequence.”

Performance ratings for schools and their parent districts or charters can be found here.

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.