Domingo Morel: School takeover triggered by politics, not education

When the state of Texas took over Houston’s public school district on March 15, it made the district one of more than 100 experiencing state takeovers somewhere in the U.S. over the past 30 years. The list includes districts serving New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans, Baltimore, Oakland and Newark.

Houston is the largest school district in Texas and eighth largest in the U.S.

While the state of Texas claims the planned takeover is about school improvement, my research suggests it is, like others in the past, influenced by racism and political power.

The run of takeovers began in the 1980s. And they have generally failed to achieve the stated goal of improved performance.

Take Michigan, where a 15-year state rein in Detroit has been judged “a costly mistake” in a recent report. It turned out the district’s biggest problem was inadequate funding, and the takeover did nothing to address that.

What’s more, as I show in a recent book on the subject, takeovers have significant negative political and economic consequences for affected communities, which are overwhelmingly communities of color. They include decreased staffing and diminished local control.

States have generally justified takeovers on the grounds that the entire school district is in need of improvement. However, that’s not the case in Houston.

By the state’s own standards, Houston schools aren’t even close to failing. In fact, the district is maintaining a solid B rating.

Following a 2015 law, HB 1842, the state of Texas was granted authority to take over a school district if a single school in that district fails to meet state education standards for five or more years. The bill passed the Republican-controlled legislature with a measure of Democratic support, but was opposed by legislators representing the Houston area.

Despite the district’s high rating, however, it includes one school, 800-student Wheatley High, that has not made significant progress since 2017. And that gives the state all it needed to assume command of 280 schools in employing 12,000 teachers serving 200,000 students.

So why would a state take over a school district that has earned a B rating from the state? And why base the takeover on the performance of one school that represents fewer than 1% of the district’s student and teaching population?

In order to understand the logic, it pays to understand the role that schools have played in the social, political and economic development of communities of color.

Historically, communities of color have relied on school level politics as an entry point to broader political participation. School-level politics may involve issues like ending school segregation, demanding more resources for schools, increasing the numbers of teachers and administrators of color, and participating in school board elections.

The process of gaining political power at the local level and eventually state level often begins at the schools, via school board service. Before Blacks and Latinos elect members of their communities to the city councils, the mayor’s office and state legislatures, they often elect them to school boards.

In Texas, communities of color are politically underrepresented. Although Blacks, Latinos and Asians represent nearly 60% of the population, their political power is not proportional.

Whites make up 54% of the Texas Legislature. The Republican Party controls the governorship, state House of Representatives and state Senate, but only 12% of Republican legislators are of color.

Communities of color in Texas have filed lawsuits arguing that they have been prevented from gaining political representation at the state level by Republicans through racial gerrymandering and disenfranchisement of Black and Latino voters.

However, despite years of systematic exclusion of people of color, the political landscape is changing. Texas is increasingly urbanizing as a result of population growth in the state’s cities. Since urban voters are more likely to vote Democratic, the growth in the urban population may potentially alter political dynamics in the state.

Houston, as the largest urban center in Texas, is at the forefront of this challenge to the Republican grip on state power. The Houston schools, in particular, are representative of the state’s demographic and political future.

The nine-member Houston school board, which the state is abolishing, is reflective of the community it serves. It consists of three Latinos, four African Americans and two whites.

This, in my view, is what has put the Houston public school system and school board at the forefront of a battle that is really about race and political power.

The Houston public school system is not failing. Rather, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the Republican state legislature are manufacturing an education crisis to prevent people of color in Houston from exercising their citizenship rights and seizing political power.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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