Protests continue as Texas formally grabs control of Houston schools
Students walk outside North Forest High School in Houston. | Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

HOUSTON—Prolonged protests continued the first week of June as the state of Texas formally grabbed control of Houston’s schools—a white Republican takeover of a majority-students-of-color school district in a predominantly Democratic city.

The Teachers (AFT) local for the Houston Independent School District and the union for the school’s cafeteria workers and other support staffers, plus community backers, marched on school district headquarters for what became a bitter meeting of the new nine-member Board of Overseers which right-wing Republican Education Commissioner Mike Morath installed.

In so many words, the unions, school system parents, the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Community Voices for Public Education and the Texas AFL-CIO protested how right-wing Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, using Morath’s agency, overthrew the elected school board in a state-engineered takeover, effective June 1.

Morath also installed interim superintendent Mike Miles, who left the Dallas superintendent’s job almost a decade before after conflicts with the school board, including a my-way-or-the-highway management style and refusal to investigate a top administrator accused of sexual harassment.

Miles’s three-year reign there was so bad that 10,000 teachers left, school test scores were flat, and several Dallas teachers drove the 239 miles to Houston to warn the board against hiring him. It did so anyway, at Morath’s order.

“We had elected trustees and they “selected them,” a Houston Independent School District unionized teacher said of the district’s voters in a telephone interview. As a community, “We haven’t gotten a definitive answer” about why the takeover occurred.

“It’s not democracy. It sounds like some type of fascism,” said the teacher and her spouse, a building trades union member. They asked not to be named to avoid possible retribution against her.

Abbott’s takeover of Houston schools follows common right-wing Republican themes: Hatred of unionized teachers, takeovers by white state governments of majority-minority governments and school districts, and disenfranchising voters by superseding elected boards—and voter repression.

Goal is privatization

The right-wingers’ goal in many cases is privatization, which rewards private for-profit school “administration” companies and deliberately leaves union teachers without jobs.

Such scenarios, including mass firings, occurred in other big-city majority-minority school districts under Republican-installed overseers and boards. The two most outstanding examples were New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Detroit after Republicans won the governorship and the legislature in 2010. Both Detroit and New Orleans are majority-minority cities and schools.

The Republican-appointed Detroit administrator fired all the teachers and rehired his favorites, union contract be damned. All but a handful of New Orleans schools are privately run, charters, or both. The city’s largest union local, the United Teachers of New Orleans, a backbone of the city’s Black middle class, was decimated.

Or, as one Houston marcher, a building trades union member, the teacher’s spouse, said of the right wing in the telephone interview: “They’re trying to take over public schools. Step 1: Sabotage. Step 2: Condemn. Step 3: Privatize…We don’t want to end up like New Orleans.”

Neither the new board nor Miles’s hiring, at $1,473.00 per day, sat well with the marchers who jammed into the school board’s hearing room, the teacher said.

The teacher said Morath and Miles plan to close 19-20 schools, all in Black and brown low-income neighborhoods, “and make the workers reapply for their jobs” if and when those buildings reopen. Before the schools takeover, Abbott also targeted Texan communities of color, in Houston in particular, on voting rights.

Abbott and Morath used a Texas law that lets the state take over an entire school district if test scores at one school consistently lag behind. Test scores at Houston’s Wheatley High School, in a neighborhood of Black and brown students, were below average—the state gave Wheatley a “D”—for five years until they rose in the last several years under ousted School Superintendent Millard House.

Wheatley now earns a “B,” but Abbott and Morath used its past performance as their excuse to seize control of Houston’s schools, the seventh-largest school district in the U.S. and Texas’s largest. “The ‘B’ grade doesn’t matter,” the teacher commented. Wheatley’s neighborhood is gentrifying.

The teacher pointed out Abbott and Morath gave the Houston district little time to turn around after the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the nation and closed the Houston schools for two years, just as it did other districts nationwide. “They only had a year” after that to recoup, the teacher said.

“Black and brown communities feel targeted” by the Houston takeover, especially since the Houston schools are virtual community centers for families and kids, providing not just teaching and learning but meals, health care, libraries and mental health services. “If they start to shuffle teachers and principals around, it hurts continuity, it hurts the communities and it hurts the kids.”

The community coalition against the takeover is now debating next steps. The ACLU and other organizations already took one: They went to court on March 31 to demand the federal government step in on civil rights grounds and investigate the takeover for violating the Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

Another, the teacher said, is a forced mass strike by all Houston school district workers, including teachers. The catch to that is Texas law bars public worker strikes, and that includes school workers. If they do strike, the teachers could lose their teaching certificates, too, she noted.

“The state takeover is not about public education but about political control of an almost entirely Black and brown student body in one of the country’s most diverse cities,” Ashley Harris, an attorney at the ACLU of Texas, said in a news release announcing the court filing.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.