State-named school czar imposes gag order on Houston teachers, staff
Texas AFT/Twitter

HOUSTON—Gag orders. Turning school libraries into detention centers. New teachers getting “bait-and-switch” acceptance letters with much lower pay. Even a farcical “play,” starring the state-named schools chief, staged for thousands of elementary school kids, at Reliant Stadium.

Welcome to the Houston Independent School District, where a state takeover at the start of the new school year in mid-summer has descended into dictatorship mixed with farce. Maybe the word “independent” should be removed from its name, thanks to right-wing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and his hand-picked Houston schools chief, Mike Miles.

With classes starting just before Labor Day, Texas Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Zeph Capo and a primary school teacher who asked not to be named, for fear of retaliation by Miles and the Abbott-picked Board of Overseers, discussed the situation in telephone interviews, and despite gag orders.

The first blow came earlier in the summer, when Abbott’s Texas Education Agency removed the elected school board, replaced it with the governor’s hand-picked “representative” allies, and fired the incumbent superintendent.

The move, telegraphed for months, drew thousands into the streets. Using old data, Abbott, a white right-wing Republican, justified the coup on the basis of one “failing” school, not coincidentally in a working-class neighborhood of color. The incumbent superintendent and board had turned it, and the entire district, around in recent years, gaining a district-wide “B” grade from the state agency.

But Houston is a big blue dot—and a favorite right-wing white Republican punching bag—in deep-red Texas. So Abbott mandated the takeover.

Then came its impacts. Miles and the board decided the kids, who are 85% students of color in one of the nation’s largest school districts, needed more “discipline.” But where to detain them?

Answer, since another Miles move was to cut librarians: Convert 28 school libraries into discipline centers—after removing all the books, of course. Even books that censors at the state Education Agency approved. But Miles and his minions weren’t done yet, Capo said.

The gag orders were the next move. “What is this man [Miles] afraid of? The truth?” Capo asked in the phone interview. “And he certainly doesn’t understand how school libraries work.”

Miles’ gag order mandated teachers and staffers, who are also union members, “not to use social media or any communication platform, including forwarding, supporting of ‘liking,’ posts or communications, to communicate false or misleading information about a school or district, particularly if designed to damage the school or district’s reputation, or undermines the school’s or district’s high-performance culture.”

The immediate trigger for the gag orders was that “a teacher made a comment” about the schools “in a meeting and was pulled out of it and hauled downtown to headquarters for discipline…I wonder how many parents and students want to be in the Houston schools,” Capo mused.

Over the phone, the teacher filled in other blanks, including the farce at the stadium, after Miles abolished all fine arts departments in Houston schools. “It’s been one crazy thing after another,” the teacher said.

“People are angry, but there’s no school board to stop him” from converting the libraries into discipline centers. “If we had a real board”—the elected board whom Abbott ousted—“we could remove him,” the teacher said of Miles. But with Abbott’s appointed panel, “How is this democracy?”

A real school board, in Dallas, fired Miles two and a half years ago after he refused to investigate sexual harassment. Miles’s Dallas performance was so bad that when three city residents learned of his pending Houston appointment, they drove 274 miles one way to Houston to oppose it.

The teacher reported new hires got acceptance letters with lower salaries than the figures Miles verbally promised. Capo knew, too. He called it “a classic bait-and-switch.” All of this drives teachers away. Two colleagues left the teacher’s school just before the school year began. One exited teaching. The other transferred to a nearby district.

Miles tackles that brain drain, the teacher said, by “illegal changes in teacher evaluation standards,” using student teachers who haven’t been certified to succeed departed teachers, and “taking away a lot of freedom from teachers” about what to teach. “We all now have scripted lesson plans” and limits on time teachers can spend with each student.

“But what about the kids that don’t get it?” the teacher adds. They need additional help, and Miles’s limits “are taking away their civil rights” to a quality education.

The crowning farce was the Reliant Stadium performance, produced, videoed and featuring—who else?—Mike Miles. “He put on a play starring himself,” even pouring coffee, the teacher said. “How crazy can you get?” And the students had to sit and listen. They videoed about it, though.

Capo and the teacher both say the sole solution they see, at this point, is to oust Abbott in the next gubernatorial election, and have a new governor end the takeover. Meanwhile, Houston federal lawmakers asked the federal Justice and Education Departments to launch a civil rights investigation.

“The only way to restore community control of the schools is to change the [political] power to change the law,” says Capo. The state Supreme Court is no help. “It sided with” the governor and Miles. All nine justices are elected statewide and all nine are Republicans.

“Teachers didn’t take on involuntary servitude and a pledge to say ‘Yes sir, whatever you say,’” AFT President Randi Weingarten, a civics teacher, said in a statement. “They are the professionals in the classroom, and takeover aside, they didn’t forfeit their inalienable right to speak out on the issues that affect them and their students when they became teachers. Quite the opposite—they became teachers to help young people and foster democratic principles.”

The Houston teacher was blunter: “People don’t understand this is a playbook from Hitler—propaganda and movies to make him [Miles] the hero.”

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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.