Texas Supreme Court clears way for state’s education agency to take over Houston ISD

The Texas Supreme Court cleared the way on Friday for the Texas Education Agency to move forward with its plan to appoint new school board members at the Houston school district. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Supreme Court cleared the way Friday for the state to potentially take control of the Houston Independent School District, which state education officials say has been plagued by mismanagement and low academic performance at one of its high schools.

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Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath first moved to take over the district’s school board in 2019 in response to allegations of misconduct by trustees and years of low performance at Phillis Wheatley High School.

Houston ISD sued and, in 2020, a Travis County district judge halted Morath’s plan by granting a temporary injunction. The injunction was upheld by an appeals court, but the TEA took the case to the state’s highest court, where the agency’s lawyers argued last year that a 2021 law — which went into effect after the case was first taken to court — allows for a state takeover.

The Texas Supreme Court sided with TEA on Friday and threw out the injunction, saying it isn’t appropriate under the new law. The decision could allow TEA to put in place new school board members, who could then vote to end the lawsuit.

TEA told The Texas Tribune that it is reviewing the court decision. The agency didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether it has plans to install a new school board right away.

The Texas Supreme Court also remanded the yearslong case back to a trial court.

Houston ISD’s lawyers have already said they would welcome returning to a trial court so the temporary injunction can be considered under the updated law, adding that the district has been ready to make a case for a permanent injunction since 2020.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said in a press release Friday that the district’s legal team is reviewing the court’s ruling. He also touted the school district’s recent improvements, including at Phillis Whitley High School. The historic school received a passing grade last year from TEA — like a majority of the district’s schools — for the first time in nearly a decade, prompting a celebration at the school.

“There is still much more work to be done, but we are excited about the progress we have made as a district and are looking forward to the work ahead,” House said in the release.

Judith Cruz’s time as a Houston ISD trustee and as the school board’s president has been consumed by this fight. She was elected as a trustee shortly before Morath’s takeover attempt, and her term as president ended Thursday, the night before the Texas Supreme Court’s decision.

Hours after the ruling, she told the Tribune that it’s still too early to determine whether or how TEA would implement a takeover — as well as how district officials would respond to such a change. She said she hopes any potential changes would cause the least amount of disruption to students in the district. Houston ISD trustees will continue to serve as elected representatives for their community, she said.

“Whether elected or appointed, the focus should always be the children,” Cruz said.

Houston ISD trustee Daniela Hernandez, the board’s current president, said the community has generally supported elected representatives instead of appointed ones, citing the pushback that TEA saw from local parents when the state agency first attempted the takeover.

She added that both the board and the school district have changed for the better since 2019.

“We have been in an upward trajectory, and we can keep on improving,” Hernandez said.

TEA has argued that state law gives the commissioner the authority to temporarily appoint board members in school districts facing five consecutive years of low academic performances, and districts that have had a state-appointed conservator overseeing and evaluating their performances for more than two years.

In Houston ISD, conservator Doris Delaney had overseen Kashmere High School since 2016 after the school failed for seven consecutive years to meet the state’s academic standards. Morath tasked Delaney with evaluating the district’s resource allocations for Kashmere and managing the school’s teachings. Morath expanded Delaney’s authority to the district level in 2019.

When the case went before the appeals court in late 2020, Houston ISD argued that Delaney hadn’t met the two-year requirement as a district-level conservator because her role at the district started as a campus-level conservator. During oral arguments in front of the state’s supreme court, TEA lawyers argued that the distinction between those two levels of conservatorship had been removed by the 2021 updates to the education code.

While lawyers reviewed the ruling, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt — the Houston Republican who authored Senate Bill 1365, the 2021 law that updated the education code — cheered the Friday court ruling.

“This Supreme Court ruling is a much-needed step to reverse the Third Court of Appeals and return the case to the intent of the Legislature back to having a conservator take additional steps to help improve public education in school districts,” he said.

On the other hand, some education onlookers and advocates said a state takeover would harm the district.

“It’s going to be a long road for HISD, but I hope they don’t give up the fight because it would be to preserve our district,” said Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, the district’s largest teacher’s union. “I hope that the district will pursue whatever avenue it has so that we can keep our democratically elected board.”

Community Voices for Public Education, a local education advocacy group, noted that state takeovers are disproportionately used against school districts with a significant population of students of color and often worsen school experiences.

The organization added that TEA’s potential takeover would be “the first in the country based only on test scores.”

“We ask everyone to oppose this state takeover and tell their elected representatives to end this fraud and to stand up for our children,” said Ruth Kravetz, the group’s co-founder.

Correction, Jan. 13, 2023: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that Houston ISD trustee Judith Cruz served as president of the district’s school board since 2019. She was elected as a trustee in 2019 and as board president in 2022. Her term as president ended on Jan. 12, 2023.