Fighting to take back Houston’s schools

When AFT members lined the streets of Houston during a protest Oct. 20, they used the fire kindled at the AFT’s national Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference held earlier in the day to address a very specific injustice: the state takeover of the Houston Independent School District.

Photo of AFT President Randi Weingarten, HFT President Jackie Anderson,and HFT members marching with banner that reads 'Houston Federation Teachers. Local 2415 | AFT | TEXAS AFT | AFT-CIO"

With signs proclaiming “End the Takeover” and “Don’t Mess with Texas Teachers,” hundreds of activists gathered outside HISD headquarters to draw a bright line between the discussions at the conference—on racial justice, equitable funding, culturally responsive curricula and more—and the disastrous path Houston has taken since the Texas Education Agency took over the district from a school board elected by the people of Houston.

Calling it a “hostile takeover,” Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson said, “Every day [appointed Superintendent Mike Miles] shows us it’s about power and money.” Meanwhile, educators simply want to do their jobs for every public school child in Houston, without interference from overbearing administrators unfamiliar with their schools. “We know what we’re doing, and we want to do what’s best for our children,” said Anderson.

“Instead of making sound policy changes to make a difference in students’ lives and academic outcomes, everything the superintendent has done so far will harm students and teachers,” said Texas AFT President Zeph Capo. “He’s turned libraries into detention centers, pulled a bait and switch about higher teacher pay, eliminated special education and speech pathology positions, eliminated recess for fifth-graders, and the list goes on.”

How we got here

Last spring, the Texas Education Agency took control of the Houston Independent School District away from the elected school board and appointed a new superintendent: Mike Miles, a charter school proponent who spent a turbulent term in Dallas turning that school district upside down.

Since that time, Miles has presided over tumultuous changes that are harming schools in Houston and preventing educators from helping their students.

  • The district has closed libraries in targeted schools—in majority Black and Latino areas—and is using them as disciplinary centers.
  • Teachers are required to use rigid instructional scripts provided by outside vendors, quizzing the students every few minutes.
  • The district banned teachers from using social media to express their opinions. HFT fought back and eventually the policy was rescinded.
  • Teachers are being evaluated based on the performance of their students. HFT filed for an injunction, and the court ruled in its favor.

A recent survey by the Houston Federation of Teachers shows that educators vehemently oppose the attempt to commandeer their schools. Nearly all of those surveyed—93.3 percent—oppose eliminating librarians; 94.9 percent say teachers should have more autonomy to adapt curriculum to student needs, and 83.7 percent oppose scripted lesson plans.

“Our educators are absolutely fed up with the new changes and are furious that the policies have nothing to do with helping students thrive or improving their academic achievement,” says Anderson. “We’re hearing directly from teachers that the new policies are bad for students and make it harder, not easier, for them to do their jobs. I’ve never heard of a district, much less a takeover target, that is doing everything possible to destroy schools, break teachers’ spirit and actually hurt students. It’s incredible, and we can’t let it continue.”

“Let us teach our lessons the way that we have found to be effective in helping our students, especially those that are struggling more,” said one survey respondent. “Get rid of the occupying government-placed superintendent and non-democratically elected board,” said another.

HFT President Jackie Anderson speaking at podium surrounded by HFT members and family members. To the right stands AFT Executive Vice-President Evelyn DeJesus

The grim history of takeovers

School district takeovers have a long history, and it is not pretty. Over the years, states have taken over seven other Texas districts as well as the school districts in Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, New York City and Cleveland. Each takeover creates disruption and upheaval, and studies show they are not successful in improving student achievement or school culture.

Typically, a district that is short on resources—and, not incidentally, is majority Black and/or Latino—is blamed for its own “failure,” usually based on low test scores, and state authorities swoop in to take the reins. Often there are political motivations behind the takeovers. They treat the schools like failing businesses, focusing on outcomes, efficiency and economy to the detriment of equitable access and the public good.

Changes are often made without consulting the people who know best what is needed—the educators, students and families to whom the schools belong. Teachers are frequently dismissed or given so little autonomy and voice that they eventually leave. In Houston, teachers have had to reapply for their jobs. Families are left with an unstable environment for their children, and communities feel betrayed.

Voters cannot “vote out” school officials who have taken over their schools because they are not elected officials, so communities feel powerless to influence change.

And so they turn to protests like the one in Houston. They work to elect officials who will listen to them and reestablish a democratic school board. They partner with allies—for example, the Texas ACLU petitioned for an investigation of the takeover in Houston.

School advocates may take officials to court—as HFT did when it filed for an injunction against teacher evaluations based on student performance. And they turn to their unions, who they know will always support communities determined to ensure their children have safe, welcoming schools that give every child the opportunity to thrive.

“You are joined by people from across the country,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten at the protest, referring to all the protesters who had gathered to march in front of the HISD building. “They have your back. We have your back. We are taking up your fight each and every day.”

[Virginia Myers]