Texas Just Seized One of The Largest School Districts in The Country

The takeover will replace elected officials with a state-appointed "board of managers" as Gov. Greg Abbott tightens government control over schools.
Eric Gay / AP 

One of the largest school districts in the country has been taken over by the government.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) confirmed Wednesday that at the end of the school year, Houston Independent School District’s superintendent and school board members will be replaced by “a board of managers” chosen by the state’s government.

The decision is being justified based on the academic performance of one of the district's 276 campuses, and will impact nearly 200,000 students. It’s by far the largest school district in Texas, made larger by a failed TEA takeover of North Forest ISD in 2008.


In November 2019, the TEA put Houston ISD on notice that a state takeover was imminent after giving the district a succession of “D” and “F” marks in its evaluations. This was made possible in 2015 when the state legislature enacted a law that gave the TEA the authority to either close a failing campus that had received five years’ worth of failing marks, or take over the entire district by appointing a Board of Managers. In Houston ISD’s case, the TEA opted for the latter. 

Houston ISD sued. But in January 2023, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that TEA could proceed

The takeover comes at a time when Republican-controlled state governments have sought to tighten their grip on schools—from eliminating courses teaching Black history and other so-called “woke” topics to policies that remove books from classrooms unless they are on a state-approved list. 

Texas educators argue the state agency set their district up to fail with its ever-changing standards. Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, says the TEA is notorious for moving the goal post on districts, especially when it comes to student attendance rates, standardized test scores, and a program called “College, Career, and Military Readiness.”


“Students have to either attend college or graduate high school with some type of career or go into the military,” Anderson told Motherboard. “If the students don’t do that, the school district loses points.” 

Wednesday’s letter to Houston ISD officials cites years of “chaotic board meetings marred by infighting” from school board members—only one of whom has been a sitting member since 2018—of routinely exceeding their authority by directing staff to violate Texas school laws. 

“Even with a delay of three full years caused by legal proceedings, systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact students most in need of our collective support,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath writes in the letter

The Texas Tribune reported that last year, Phillis Wheatley High School earned a “C” and Houston ISD received an overall “B” from the TEA. In the last 19 months, the number of Houston ISD campuses that received failing marks have been reduced from 50 to 10. In a statement, outgoing Houston ISD superintendent Miller House II says this week’s announcement doesn’t discount the districts’ gains. 


“I am proud to say, in the last 19 months, we have already seen vast improvements,” House II said in a statement to Motherboard. “Because of the hard work of our students, teachers, and staff, we have lifted 40 of 50 schools off the ‘D’ or ‘F’ TEA accountability ratings list. Together, with our parents, community members and leaders, we developed the district's first comprehensive five-year strategic plan to build a better HISD.”

The takeover of Houston ISD, the 8th largest school district in the country, raises alarm bells for many education advocates because of how far the state’s reach seems to go. As Motherboard previously reported, conservative policies enacted in Florida have threatened teachers and librarians with felony charges if they fail to remove books which the state considers “prurient” or “offensive.” What’s happening in Texas appears to demonstrate how two conservative governors and potential 2024 presidential contenders, Texas’ Greg Abbott and Florida’s Ron DeSantis, are caught up in an state-education arms race to control U.S. education. But Abbott’s approach is different in that it’s focused on privatization: The Texas Tribune has reported that Abbott supports a “school choice policy” via an educational savings account program.


“So you've given out these vouchers,” Anderson said. “The voucher has gone to these private schools. Then you don't have the money as a parent to pay for the next semester, and your child has to come back because you don't have the money to pay for the second semester. Now [Abbott’s] marketing this as ‘parents' choice.’ But parents already have a choice, without vouchers, where they want to send their kids to school. Houston ISD is a district of choice.”

Researchers who follow school district takeovers say there’s a lot of evidence that they don’t actually improve academic performance..They note that state takeovers disproportionately impact districts made up of a majority of students of color and elected boards comprised of trustees of color, and that they have other negative impacts on districts, including fractured parent and community relations with the schools. 

“In the case of Houston, I’m concerned about what approach the board of managers might take to increase the number of charter schools in the area, as we saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” Chloe Sikes, deputy director of policy at the educational nonprofit Intercultural Development Research Association, told Motherboard. “The takeover concerns the academic performance of a single campus, Wheatley High School, which has actually improved in the latest accountability ratings to a C rating. If charter schools are expanded in the district, this could lead to other negative impacts to Houston ISD’s per student funding, teacher workforce, and community input and accountability.”

TEA’s Morath will determine how long the state’s board will control Houston ISD, which is the largest district TEA has taken over since 2000. More announcements from TEA are expected to be released in the coming weeks, but documents obtained by the Tribune before they were taken offline include an unpaid job application for Board of Managers seats that describe the core purpose of the Board of Managers as “to improve student outcomes” as they relate to preparing students for “college, career, or the military.” 

Meanwhile, teachers unions like Houston Federation of Teachers are now bracing themselves for cost-cutting measures. When TEA took over North Forest ISD, Anderson says many teachers were laid off. 

“Anytime an unelected individual that's appointed by the governor comes in and removes the entire democratically elected board [it] virtually silences our voices,” said Anderson. “You've taken away our democratic right to vote. And you have done a thing to us that says what we want does not matter.”