Texas officials on Wednesday announced a state takeover of Houston’s nearly 200,000-student public school district, the eighth-largest in the country, acting on years of threats and angering Democrats who assailed the move as political.
The announcement, made by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s education commissioner, amounts to one of the largest school takeovers ever in the U.S.
It also deepens a high-stakes rift between Texas’ largest city, where Democrats wield control locally and state Republican leaders have sought increasing authority in the wake of election fumbles and pandemic restrictions.
Other big cities including Philadelphia, New Orleans and Detroit in recent decades have gone through state takeovers, which are generally viewed as last resorts for underperforming schools and are often met with community backlash. Critics argue that past outcomes show little improvement following state interventions.
The state began making moves toward a takeover of the Houston Independent School District in 2019, following allegations of misconduct by school trustees, including inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts, and chronically low academic scores at one of its roughly 50 high schools.
The district sued to block a takeover, but new education laws subsequently passed by the GOP-controlled state Legislature and a January ruling from the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for the state to seize control.
Schools in Houston are not under mayoral control, unlike in cities such as New York or Chicago, but as expectations of a takeover mounted, the city’s Democratic leaders unified in opposition.
Most of Houston’s school board members have been replaced since 2019. District officials also say the state is ignoring academic strides made across city schools.
Race is also an issue because the overwhelming majority of students in Houston schools are Hispanic or Black. Domingo Morel, a professor of political science and public services at New York University, has studied school takeovers nationwide and said the political dynamics in Texas are similar to where states have intervened elsewhere.
The demographics in Houston, Morel said, are also similar.
“If we just focus on taking over school districts because they underperform, we would have a lot more takeovers,” Morel said. “But that’s not what happens.”