EducationStatewide NewsState Supreme Court Clears Way for Texas Education Agency Takeover of Houston ISD

After years of litigation, the Supreme Court opinion clears the way for the TEA commissioner to replace the elected trustees with appointed managers.
January 13, 2023
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The Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) on Friday reversed a lower court judgment that has prevented the Texas Education Agency (TEA) from taking over the troubled Houston Independent School District (HISD) since 2019.

In overturning a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) issued by a Travis County trial court, SCOTX cited legislation passed by the state Legislature in 2021 that strengthened the authority of the TEA commissioner to intervene in districts failing to meet minimum state standards.

In 2019, a 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 performance standards.

After TEA Commissioner Mike Morath initiated proceedings under state law to replace the elected board of trustees with an appointed board of managers, the district sued, arguing that Morath had exceeded his authority.

A U.S. District court judge dismissed the case from the federal court system, but the state district court judge issued an injunction blocking TEA action. The injunction was upheld by the Third District Court of Appeals and then temporarily by the state Supreme Court while the case was under consideration.

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Attorneys for HISD argued that although Wheatley High School had incurred “F” ratings every year between 2013 and 2019, since the school was not rated in 2018 due to Hurricane Harvey, there were not enough “consecutive” years of failure to trigger state intervention.  They also asserted that Morath did not have the authority to place a conservator over the district in lieu of a superintendent, and could not delegate to an agency the underling authority to review the district’s objections.

The injunction blocking TEA action prompted state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) to both introduce legislation to address legal ambiguities identified in the HISD case, with Bettencourt’s Senate Bill (SB) 1365 receiving final approval from both chambers.

In the SCOTX opinion written by Justice Jane Bland, the court referred to SB 1365 provisions, writing, “In sum, the Legislature abrogated much of the court of appeal’s interpretation of the Education Code provisions that govern this case.”

In addition to changes in the law, SCOTX notes that since 2019, voters have elected several new HISD board members and hired a new permanent superintendent. With such changes, the court concludes there is no basis to continue the TRO against the TEA Commissioner’s appointment of a board of managers.

“We hold that the District failed to demonstrate that the Commissioner and his conservator’s planned conduct violates the law,” the SCOTX decision reads. “Thus, the District is not entitled to injunctive relief. We remand the case to the trial court, however, to permit the parties to fully develop the record in light of intervening legal and factual changes.”

“Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals’ judgment, vacate the temporary injunction, and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Bettencourt hailed the SCOTX opinion, saying the intent of his bill was to “have a school accountability system that worked.”

“This Supreme Court ruling is a much-needed step to reverse the Third Court of Appeals and return the case to the intent of the Legislature back to having a conservator take additional steps to help improve public education in school districts,” said Bettencourt in a statement.

HISD Superintendent Millard House II issued a statement saying the district’s legal team is reviewing the opinion. A TEA spokesperson indicated the state agency is also conducting a review.

With more than 193,000 students, HISD is the state’s largest public school district. For the 2021-22 school year, HISD earned an overall “B” rating, with a “C” in student achievement. Wheatley High School received its first passing grade in nearly a decade, but Kashmere High School did not meet minimum standards.

“I hope it’s a new day for student outcomes for all students in Texas, particularly those students in northeast Houston,” Dutton told The Texan. Although HISD has elected several new board members, Dutton said he did not see much improvement in academic achievement.

“I don’t think a whole lot has changed in term of the reasons TEA became involved. I think they probably have more valid reasons now than before,” said Dutton, adding that he saw the failure to meet standards at high schools like Kashmere as symptoms of problems that begin in lower grades.

“I defy anybody to take a look at the elementary schools in northeast Houston and tell me where you could find a third-grade student, for example, who’s reading on grade level.”

Dutton said many parents and grandparents have expressed frustration with the school district and given up hope that it can be improved. He supports state intervention to address the problem.

“There is nothing wrong with the students in northeast Houston, but there’s something wrong with what we are giving them. Houston ISD has proven they either can’t or won’t fix the schools in northeast Houston.”

Last year, former HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who was named in the TEA investigation, pleaded guilty to federal charges in relation to a school district bribery scheme.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include statements from Dutton.

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Holly Hansen

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.