Houston ISD schools face state takeover, growth in charters
Thursday, December 05, 2019
As the national wave of education labor successes, which include a rejection of charter school expansion and school budget freezes, continue, the state of Texas has decided to take over the Houston Independent School District in an effort to improve student performance.
The takeover tactic has an infamous history in U.S. education circles, requiring serious educator efforts to mitigate the worst effects of this awkward — even hostile — move.
For example, New Jersey suffered an almost two-decade takeover of several school districts. If school administrators and educators couldn’t improve student scores quickly enough, schools were deemed insufficient.
But state-controlled schools alienated administrators, teachers, and staff; disempowered local school boards, stripping their authority; and, most importantly, obstructed student learning.
New Jersey’s takeover has been studied as a racial engineering tactic used to normalize the so-called charter school solution: schools taken over by the state have 97% black and brown student populations. This is also being said about the Houston takeover, which fits the larger national pattern of rapid-fire chartering — especially after hurricanes.
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans became a chartered city with its Recovery School District (RSD). Hurricane Harvey destroyed parts of Houston in August 2017. The chartering idea no doubt tempts local authorities and the business class: “...states now can yank individual schools out of their local districts and place them in a state-managed district, which then typically turns them over to charter operators.”
Or, states can take over a whole district. With 283 schools and 213,000 students, a state takeover of Houston Independent School District (HISD) is a massive undertaking that presents many problems.
Houston has a large population of 2.5 million still recovering from Hurricane Harvey in many ways. Hurricane recovery isn’t quick these days.
Houston ISD schools have suffered under extra budget restraints, creating generally austere public education budgets. This underfunding spawns a crisis in teaching and learning. Yes, there is occasional administrator malfeasance, but the real problems can be fixed by honoring many bread-and-butter union demands.
The takeover excuse given is that low-performing schools, especially Wheatley High School in the city’s Fifth Ward, are in crisis. But there are many ways to fix a crisis, with takeover being the most cumbersome. This is what the teachers’ union plans to argue in an impending lawsuit against the state. There are reams of data from New Jersey to support the case against takeover.
Wheatley graduate and state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., who has been in office since 1985, is a key official in the battle. He crafted legislation paving the takeover path, and now, there’s even speculation he may personally profit from Houston chartering initiatives.
While Dutton’s charter ties are still speculative, this type of business connection is common. The nation’s top experimental charter playground, Florida, is emblematic here: Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is a pro-charter official whose wife even operated a charter school in Pasco County, Florida.
KIPP, Yes Prep, and the Varnett Public School are three widely represented Houston-area charter businesses. IDEA Public Schools plans to open four charters next year in Houston, and 20 by 2026. That’s 24 new charters in seven years; there are 280 schools in HISD, meaning 8.5% are facing chartering from just one company.
With hurricane recovery and a contentious public school battle that’s just beginning, Houston can look to other states, like New Jersey, that have already reached the other side of school takeovers.
One reason it took New Jersey decades to overthrow state control is because benchmarks were unclear and unfairly administered.
Since increased test scores are such a prominent benchmark justifying takeover, consider a scenario: even if charters raise student scores, there’s ample research indicating they are attractive to profiteers because those schools are less regulated — including abusive methods of disciplining black and brown students.
Furthermore, look out for a new breed of charter that proposes a hybrid model of democratic school board collaboration and other incentives. This is lipstick on a pig, as public money still shifts to private hands — with fewer regulations and an anti-union approach.
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