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The state is poised to take over the Houston Independent School District, a threat that has set the community into action.

Texas Education Agency officials appear ready to install a board of managers to govern the district under a 2015 state law that mandates punishment of any district in which a single campus received five consecutive failing grades under Texas’ academic accountability system. HISD's Wheatley High School totaled seven failing grades between 2012 and 2019, with no rating issued in 2018 due to Hurricane Harvey.

While questions have swirled about the reasons for the takeover – Is this because of Wheatley’s previous failing grades? Can the school still be categorized as failing after earning a C in its most recent accountability report? – Houston parents and activists suspect the reason is simple: power.

But who should have the power to steer a school district?

According to Gov. Greg Abbott, that’s a job for parents. Just last year, Abbott issued a “Parental Bill of Rights” declaring that “parents are primary decision makers” for their children’s education.

And last month, Abbott spoke to more than 300 parents and community members at Covenant Christian School in Conroe, touting his belief that parents should have the final say about what their children are taught in schools.

“We must empower parents to choose the best possible academic opportunities for their children,” he said, leaning into his main point that nobody knows what’s best for a child better than that child’s parents.

Why is that the case in Conroe, but not in Houston, where the takeover will allow TEA Commissioner Mike Morath to strip all powers from HISD’s elected school board and give it to a state-selected board of managers for the next several years?

For one thing, Abbott – a Republican – easily won re-election in Montgomery County, where he garnered 73 percent of the vote this November, compared with the 44 percent he received in Harris County. Montgomery County parents are much more likely to be aligned with Abbott’s views.

“This is a hostile takeover,” Bishop James Dixon II, president of the NAACP Houston Branch, said during a rally in front of HISD’s central office earlier this month. “This is not about children. It’s not about students. It’s not about education. It’s about perverted politics.”

Dixon called the takeover “the death knell to the empowerment of minority students.”

  • People hold hands as they protest a looming TEA takeover of the Houston Independent School District.
  • A group of people cheer in support of the Houston Independent School District as the Texas Education Agency prepares to oust HISD's board.
  • Woman holds a sign protesting goverment agency from taking over a school district.
  • A woman’s jacket reads, “We care. We fight. We show up. We teach. We vote.”
  • Bishop James Dixon gives a speach
  • Mother and child listen to a speaker during a townhall.
  • Attendees cheer during a townhall.
  • HISD board member gives a speach
  • HISD board member gives a speach
  • Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee gives a speach oppossing the appointment of a new board of managers

According to the TEA, 62 percent of the nearly 200,000 students enrolled in HISD are Hispanic; 22 percent are Black; 10 percent are white; and 4 percent are Asian.

Dixon argued that the state takeover would not happen in a district where the majority of students are not children of color.

He has a point. Of the six independent school districts that either currently have a board of managers in place by the TEA or have recently had local control restored, only one was not minority-majority: Shepherd ISD, a tiny district of fewer than 2,000 students, 53 percent of whom are white.

Parent holds a sign during a protest.
Houston ISD parent Audrey Nath, center, holds a sign protesting a possible Texas Education Agency takeover of the district during a rally held outside the Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

“I’m concerned about losing my voice as a parent,” said Kourtney Revels, whose daughter attends Elmore Elementary School on the district’s northeast side. She’s one voice in a chorus of parents with similar fears.

“Right now, there are HISD board members that we’ve elected, and they need to respond to us – the people who’ve elected them,” said Audrey Nath, a parent of a kindergartner in HISD who is also on a waitlist to enroll her younger child in the district’s competitive prekindergarten program. “But who are these managers they’re bringing in with the TEA? What are their goals? What’s their plan?”

Nath, a pediatric neurologist, hasn’t been able to find answers to these questions. Nor does she understand why the TEA is taking this action now.

“They say it’s because of one school – Wheatley High School – that’s been failing,” Nath said. “But then they turned it around. It really feels like they’re making up excuses of why they want to do this takeover. I’m a mom. When your kid is lying to you, you figure it out pretty quickly, and that’s the vibe I’m getting from this.”

The why-now of it can be explained by the governor’s political ambitions, as he and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – who has also been vocal about beefing up parents’ rights in his state – appear to be gunning for a presidential run in 2024. (Abbott's office declined to comment for this story.)

“As the governor contemplates his bid to run for president, he is talking about parent choice,” state Rep. Christina Morales, D-Houston, said during a recent rally at Discovery Green. “But he doesn’t want the parents’ choice to run our school district? A state takeover removes the duly elected officials, the elected leaders, overruling democracy and the voice of the people.”

The state cannot have it both ways. Either parents know what’s best for their children in the classroom and deserve to have input in the way local schools are run, or they do not.

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Maggie Gordon is the Landing's senior storyteller who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund...